Friday, March 21, 2008

Graduation: Kimono vs Regalia

Today was graduation day here at Host University. When I was planning my trip to Kyushu, S, who was helping me, encouraged me to come back so that I could experience graduation here. So I did. There's something to be said for encouragement. I've gone to lots of graduation ceremonies, and I'll admit they've come to seem "natural" to me, as if there's basically one way to do things. When things come to seem "natural," then it's often healthy to experience them in a different way. That's part of experiencing a different culture.

I went to the central area of campus about half an hour ahead of the ceremony and was rather charmed to see large crowds, and a generous mix of kimono among the black suits (on both men and women).

As at many universities, graduations pose logistical problems here. At my home university, we use a basketball gym thing with horrifically bad acoustics for graduation. It's shameful, really. You can hear steps on the wooden bleachers from across the hall, but can barely hear anything from the stage, even when amplified.

Here, they solve the logistical problem by having the ceremonial stuff with the students in an auditorium and live-broadcasting the whole thing to several large classrooms across campus where people are welcome to sit and watch. So that's where I went.

At the US graduations I've experienced, the faculty wears fancy, often colorful regalia, while students are pretty much dressed in black or some other dark color. Here, the faculty folks were in black suits, and students provided the splash of color.

There were differences in the ways things happened, too.

A typical US graduation ceremony looks something like this:

Processional: stage group, faculty, and students enter to the tune of "Pomp and Circumstance." The National Anthem follows.

Speeches and Awards: Depending on the school and the moment, you get at least two speeches, a speaker (in my experience, often the head of the school) and a students speaker. If the speaker's a guest, sometimes there's an honorary doctorate involved.

The Moment: A school bigwig has the students stand and switch their tassles.

The Parade of Graduates: Each grad walks across the stage while his/her name is called; often s/he is handed a piece of paper certifying that s/he's participated in the ceremony.

Recessional: Everyone leaves, again to the tune of "Pomp and Circumstance." You have to get people out, right?

Things get switched around here and there, but that's how the ceremonies I've seen have gone, basically.

Things here were very different. For one thing, I couldn't understand much, but I think I had a sense of what was happening, more or less. In fact, there might actually be an advantage to not understanding the speeches, you know?

The Host University band was playing outside before the graduation. Classical sounding music, but nothing I recognized (though I'm pretty ignorant). I went into one of the video feed rooms when folks started going into the main building. Inside, the video feed was showing a picture of a backdrop thing that turned out to be the stage curtain. When they raised it, there were two groups of men in black suits seated on the stage (and one guy--the president, I think--in western style regalia). There was a central podium on stage, in front of a big flower display.

A guy in a black suit stood to the side and spoke, and then a small group of singers came on stage and the band lined up in front of the stage, and there was a song. I'm guessing (and only guessing) the national anthem.

The guy to the side spoke again and a guy in a black suit got up from the stage seating to stand behind the central podium. Two students got up and went up to the stage. They first stood to the side and bowed to the audience, then went to the center and bowed first to the stage group on one side, then the other, and finally to the podium guy. The podium guy spoke a bit, and handed a big paper (or something) to one of the students, who bowed and then stepped back. And again, the podium guy spoke and handed a big paper to the second student, who bowed and stepped back. The two students bowed again to the podium, then to each stage group, and then stepped to the side and bowed to the audience.

I'm guessing these were some sort of student awards. There were more of the same, with mostly single people stepping forward.

After a while, a student gave a short speech. Then a couple of (faculty members?) read aloud letters in Spanish and English from universities with strong relationships with Host University, congratulating its graduates.

A student came forward with flowers and presented a short speech in English thanking the president (I think) at the podium for the educational opportunities at Host University, and handed him the flowers.

The band and singers came back, and played/sang what sounded like "Auld Lang Syne," but with Japanese words. (I looked it up later, and it's traditional to play it at Japanese graduations, as well as at other graduations around the world.)

The curtain thing came down, and I figured it was half-time or something, before the long reading of the graduates' names. But people around me started getting up and leaving. People in the auditorium on screen, though, were still seated, so I waited a bit. And then a guy came on stage and said a few words, and the auditorium audience got up and started to leave, too. So that was that. (Maybe they were waiting for the stage party, already hidden by the curtain, to leave?)

I don't know if it's typical here, but I missed the tassle moment. I didn't miss the parade of grads, which is really only fun if you know the students, and which gets long fast.

Outside again, folks milled around, going to tea and receptions, and looking pretty darned nice all dressed up. I think in general, the Japanese students look more comfortable dressed up (men, especially, seem more comfortable in suits than in the states) than my US students do, perhaps because they spend more time in suits (or school uniforms)?

The ceremony was short, even though I couldn't understand quite what was happening. And short, for ceremonies, is a good thing.

And I have to admit, the students in their kimonos looked a lot better than I ever do in my regalia. They looked a lot better than most faculty I've seen ever do in regalia.


(I have to add: that only goes if I'm not dressing up. If I had to wear a kimono, the effect would probably be fatal to me, so I vote no. I don't mind regalia too much.)


  1. how interesting!

    kimonos are much prettier than academic regalia. they are harder to get on, though. also, pretty much anything goes under the regalia.

  2. Anonymous5:09 PM

    Wow - kimonos for graduation must be cool. I believe there is/has been some controversy about the place of the national anthem (Kimigayo) and the flag (Hinomaru) in such ceremonies so I don't know if either are used much now.

  3. There's also no "tassle moment" here in Scotland (I'm at Edinburgh University). In fact, caps are not worn at our graduation. In the UK, it is customary to remove hats when the ceremony is held indoors, and as far as I'm aware, the entire ceremony at Edinburgh University is indoors. Students may buy caps if they wish but caps are really only for photos since they can't be worn at the ceremony!

    By the way, you can't recognise the Japanese national anthem? No offence; I'm just a bit surprised. And yes - as the previous commenter stated - the anthem is *quite* controversial.