Saturday 10 March 2018

Graduation Season: Farewells and Fireflies

March in Japan is a month of endings and goodbyes. Even the previous year itself is not properly finished until the end of the month: March 31st marks the end of the both the school year and the fiscal year, that is 2017 nendo (年度). One of the most visible manifestations of such endings are the graduation ceremonies or sotsugyō-shiki (卒業式) with sotsu meaning to finish (oeru / owaru) or to even to die (sossuru). More colloquially, sotsugyō suru also means to get over or lose interesting in something. Next week is the time for university graduation ceremonies while high-school graduation ceremonies were held the week before.

I don't remember anything special at all happening for my high-school graduation in the UK, but in Japan it's rather a splendid affair with lots of speeches and songs. First, second, and (graduating) third-grade students as well as parents and guardians (hogo-sha =保護者) sit facing the stage where various dignitaries are seated. Each student is called and they go up on stage in turn to get their graduation certificate (sotsugyō shōsho =卒業証書)from the headmaster. There is rather a strict protocol for receiving the certificate: bow once, receive the certificate with two hands (also the polite way to receive a business card), step back one step, and then bow one more time.

Graduation ceremonies almost always feature the singing of "Hotaru no Hikari" (蛍の光) or "Glow of a Firefly" first introduced in a collection for elementary school students in 1881. However, the melody is immediately familiar: Auld Lang Syne. The lyrics to this classic New Year's Eve song seem to match well: Auld Lang Syne starts with a call to remember long-standing friendships. However, the Japanese lyrics are rather different, focusing instead on a hard-working student reflecting on how the years have flown by studying "by the light of fireflies." But the song is not only heard in March: it is also played throughout the year at closing time in shops!