The start of spring also signals the end of some things, and April graduation is one yearly event thousands of young people look forward to. University graduation ceremonies are often held on the last week of March in Japan. As one may expect, graduation ceremonies are fancy affairs, as young adults celebrate the completion of their formal education, and brace themselves for the challenges of their next stage in life.
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Japanese graduation ceremonies differ in several ways from what we see in other parts of the world. Firstly, universities do not require (or manufacture) graduation robes for their undergraduate class. In fact, many universities do not even have dress codes: students may freely attend their ceremonies in flip-flops if they so wish.
Of course, students like to dress up for the occasion nonetheless. Women would usually come in beautiful hakama attire, a traditional formal Japanese attire associated with learnedness. They differ from kimonos in that instead of having an obi (the “belt”) to tie the robe together, they wear a long pant-skirt (called the hakama) over the robe. The robes worn in the April ceremony are often in youthful bright colors and designs, befitting of their youth and the season.
Hakamas do not come cheap, often costing an upwards of 50000yen (about 500USD) to rent, including hair and makeup. Men go low key, often attending in regular suits and ties, though a small percentage would also go full out in the male hakama attire.
Another way that Japanese ceremonies differ is the ceremony proceedings. One significant difference is instead of the long roll-and-call inviting each graduate up to collect their diplomas we see in other countries, Japanese ceremonies often only call up class representatives up to collect the diplomas on behalf of their graduation class during the main hall ceremonies, and then they distribute them out in more intimate mini-ceremonies after.
Lastly, perhaps surprisingly, Japanese parents and family members quite rarely turn up for graduation ceremonies. Arguably, graduation in Japan is more like a celebration for colleague graduates and their friends and professors, rather than a proud moment for parents for their child’s achievements. There are upsides of not sharing this milestone together with the folks, as graduates often depart for post-ceremony drinking parties to celebrate their perceived last breath of freedom. At least that seems to be in accordance with global standards of graduation etiquette!