Ceremonies feature prominently in Japanese schools. Your first day at school, there will be a ceremony, as there will be on your final day, too. Between those dates, you’ll experience at least seven more ceremonies, plus countless others depending on your school’s events. If you teach at more than one school, you’ll likely attend multiples of these ceremonies. Below I’ll outline when you can expect these and what they’ll probably be like.
The Basic Format
Except for special events like sports day (undokai), pretty much every ceremony you attend will be held in the school gymnasium. The students will set up the chairs for the teachers and the guests of honor, and they may or may not have chairs they sit in as well. Depending on the school and the type of event, teachers and guests may be in opposite positions, and parents and family may or may not be in attendance. Additionally, more formal events will have students dressed in their school uniforms instead of their gym attire.
Ceremonies begin with an opening statement made, usually, by the vice principal or perhaps a head teacher. The statement is as simple as “We’re beginning the ____ ceremony now.” Typically the principal will give a welcome message. Then, depending on the type of ceremony, others will give speeches. I’ll talk more about these below. Then the ceremony ends with a final statement: “The ____ ceremony is now finished.” The students will put up the chairs, though teachers (and parents) will help as well. Guests rarely will as they are often dismissed before the official closing statement.
One aspect of these ceremonies to note is the bowing. The speaker will bow to the teachers, then to the guests. Afterward, he will walk onto the stage, bow to the Japanese flag, then approach the podium. There he’ll bow to the entire audience. Once he finishes his speech, he will reverse the order of bowing as he leaves stage and sits again. Depending on where you are sitting (teacher, guest, audience), you’ll bow in return as many times as he bows to your group. The next speaker will not be announced until the previous speaker has fully taken his seat again.
As a foreigner, it can get frustrating to sit through these bows as it adds time to the ceremony. (We used to say we would time each set of bows one day and add them together to see how much time was spent bowing during the ceremony, though we never did. I’m genuinely curious, though.) Whether we like it or not, bowing is an essential element of Japanese culture. By the end of your time in Japan, you’ll be bowing to everyone and everything, too!
One more thing to note about ceremonies and special events: they will likely be televised. Typically this is for major ceremonies (the start of the new school year, graduation, sports day), so don’t worry too much about being filmed on your first or last days.
Welcome & Farewell Ceremonies
This is the first ceremony you’ll experience—and it will be all for you! Your school (or schools) will welcome you to the area and to your position as a new teacher with them. I had six schools I taught at, so I attended six of these welcome ceremonies. When I left my schools after my second year with them, I attended six farewell ceremonies, which were quite similar in format.
0. Seating. You are the only guest, so you’ll have a spot all by yourself. It will probably be to the side of the stage, but it’s possible that it will be a seat already on the stage.
1. Opening statement. The speaker will bow to the teachers as he or she stands from their ranks. Then they will turn and bow to you. You’ll remain seated but will bow back. The speaker will bow to the audience, and you’ll bow along with them in return. You’ll bow again when he leaves and when he bows to you before sitting again. The same is true of all other statements made.
2. Welcome statement. The principal (or perhaps the English teacher) will welcome you to school and will introduce you to the students and faculty.
3. Your turn! Next, the speaker will welcome you to the podium. There you’ll give an introduction. It can be in English or in Japanese. I suggest practicing even a few sentences in Japanese if you don’t know it. They’ll appreciate it. Additionally, prepare a short PowerPoint introducing yourself. (Use more pictures than words, and get creative!) You may not use it during your welcome speech (or you might), but you’ll definitely use it during most or all of your first lessons.
When you get up, if you forget to bow, they’ll forgive you. (I don’t think I bowed much during my welcome ceremonies.) However, if you want to do it correctly, here’s how. (Note: I only know how to do this from when you are seated on the floor, not on the stage, so you can probably skip the first half of this if you’re seated on stage.)
Stand from your chair and bow across the gym to the teachers. Then climb the stairs to the stage. I assume you can bow to the Japanese flag if you want—stand a few steps onto the stage to do so—but if you’re unsure, they won’t mind if you don’t do this step. Once you’re at the podium, if there is one, take a step back so you can bow to the audience. Then approach the podium and speak. You don’t have to say much, and it doesn’t have to be complicated. In fact, I urge you to keep it simple. Once you’re finished, step back and bow to the audience. If you bowed to the flag on your way in, pause near the stairs and bow again. Return to your seat. Stand in front of it and bow to the teachers. Then sit.
4. More welcoming. This may take many forms. You could receive welcome flowers, get welcome notes, or even play a short game with the students (e.g. group rock-paper-scissors). A student may give a short welcome speech in Japanese or English. Whenever anyone bows to you, bow back, though you don’t have to stand to do so.
5. Closing. At this point, as the guest, you may or may not be dismissed before everyone else. Bow to the teachers and the students, then make your way out of the gym. Usually, the English teacher will follow suit and guide you from there. The closing statement may be made before or after you leave. You won’t be expected to help with cleanup during this ceremony.
Your farewell ceremony will be pretty much the same, but you’ll receive more gifts. If you stay on for more than one year, you’ll probably encounter welcome and farewell ceremonies for other incoming and outgoing teachers. These ceremonies may simpler than yours were, but that all depends on the school.
Opening & Closing Ceremonies
These ceremonies are typically on the shorter end of the spectrum, and they happen three times a year: at the beginning and end of each trimester. Depending on the number and type of schools you teach at, you may have to attend multiples of these (e.g. a middle school opening ceremony on Monday and a high school one on Tuesday). Attire is typically your work clothes as you’ll usually go into classes after this. You can always bring something a little nicer and change after the ceremony. If you’re worried about what to wear, I recommend this second route, at least until you get the hang of the ceremonies and what your fellow teachers wear.
The format for these runs the same way as described in the general format section. Your school may invite some guest speakers to welcome the students into a new year or to congratulate them on finishing a school year. It’s less likely you’ll have guests for the opening and closing ceremonies between the first and final ones. The guests may give speeches.
You’ll be seated with the teachers, so you’ll have more bowing to do than before. You’ll bow when a teacher stands to speak and bows to his fellow teachers, when a guest stands to speak and bows to the teachers, and when the speaker bows to the audience. You won’t be expected to do much else other than sit there, but you may have to help the students clean up the chairs afterward, help the teachers close windows, and so on. Students will probably try to take the chairs from you so that you don’t have to do the work. You’re free to let them if you like, as they’re trying to be respectful to you, but you can also politely decline and thank them.
You may or may not have to sing the school song during the ceremony. It’s alright if you don’t, but I suggest trying to learn at least some of it. This may also occur during other ceremonies, such as farewell ceremonies.
You’ll want to dress up nicely for this one, but remember that graduation is in March, so dress warmly. Again, you’ll sit with the teachers, and parents and family will be in attendance. There will be more speeches than most other ceremonies, so it will be one of the longest ones you attend. You’ll watch the students receive flowers or other tokens of graduation. Some schools may do this individually as the students walk out, or they’ll give a graduation paper to the head of each 3rd year class. It depends on your school. Additionally, the head of the PTA will probably give a speech congratulating the students and thanking the teachers, and most of the family members will bow afterward. The students in the lower grades will clean up the chairs, but the teachers and family will usually help, too, as there’s more work to be done then. Students and parents may try and take the chairs from you out of respect, and, as before, you can respond by letting them or by politely declining and thanking them. Bows are never amiss here.
Undokai & Other Events
Once a year, each school holds a sports day (undokai). Four of my schools held them around October or November, and one held it in April or May, but most of my friend’s schools held them in the spring. High schools may not have a sports day but instead have a days-long school festival (bunkasai; lit: culture festival). For my school, I attended the bazaar, where clubs sold items, performed demonstrations, and sold food. (Buy your food tickets when they sell them so you’re sure to get some food. You can pay the day of, but they may not have enough food for you.) My school also had a talent show. I’m not aware of any other parts to this event.
The middle schools, and maybe the elementary schools, will have a smaller bunkasai, too. This will show off their science projects, their artwork, their home economics projects, and so on. They may have a skit or a dance performance as well.
These events aren’t usually held on a school day, but preparations may take days or weeks, as in the case of undokai or the high school bunkasai. If you’re at school while they practice or prepare, you may be asked to help set up the gymnasium, to put up the tents outside, to watch the undokai practices (a run-through from start to finish, but only short versions of the sports activities.) On some days, your class schedule will be shortened, rearranged, or even dismissed entirely, especially as undokai draws nearer.
The ceremonies for these events fall in the middle of the spectrum in terms of length. For undokai, the students will march around the field and form their lines. You’ll stand for the national anthem at some point. There will be welcome statements, speeches from guests, and so on. During the award ceremony, you’ll also hear speeches from guests. You can read more about undokai in my other post about it.
Did I forget any ceremonies? If you’ve taught in Japan, what were your ceremonies like? Let me know, and feel free to ask any questions you have. I’ll answer them as soon and as best as I can. Happy ceremony-ing!