text and photo by Grigoris A. Miliaresis
I have often thought –and written more than once- that the best way for someone who hasn’t lived in Japan to understand it is by comparing it to the army: everything is organized according to rules and procedures that apply to everything and everyone (except when they don’t: one of the fundamental rules of Japanese society is “keesu-bai-keesu” or “ケースバイケース” i.e. “case-by-case”) and are taught very early, there is a hierarchical structure that defines all behaviors, there are uniforms and prescribed roles, individuality is considered, if not an anathema, certainly something rather detrimental as compared to the welfare of the group and formalities are often revered disproportionately more than substance. And there is an almost religious faith in the necessity of various ceremonies which are also performed according to very specific rules and processes.
March is the month of one of the most important such ceremonies for the younger members of society, the students: it is the month when some of them graduate (the Japanese academic year starts, like the fiscal year, on April 1st) from elementary school, junior high school, high school or college and, in effect, enter a new stage in their lives. The name of the ceremony is sotsugyo-shiki (卒業式) that is “graduation ceremony” but those familiar with similar usually casual events in the West will probably experience a mild shock if they witness their Japanese version: even in small, provincial high-schools, the protocol will be up to par with that of the Imperial Court’s with national, city and school hymns, students parading in perfect uniforms, speeches, group bowings towards various directions and commands and responses that wouldn’t be out of place in any military recruit training center.
Similarly formalized are the “informal” traditions of each school: the parties after the ceremony, the exchange of buttons or other parts of the school uniform with friends, the gifts from the school or the PTA, the appreciation cards and the yearbooks; even though the students are theoretically “relieved” from the obligations of the school they finish, the whole process reminds them that what follows is equally confining and part of the cycle called “life in Japanese society”. Perhaps this is the reason why many among them organize spontaneous “nijikai” (二次会) i.e. “second parties” trying to mark the day in a more personal way: no society, however strict (and Japan’s is almost as strict as it gets), can completely block out personal expression. It can assimilate it though, hence the existence in the vocabulary of the word “nijikai” and of “acceptable” ways of partying: if life in Japan resembles a tour of duty, it is a tour of duty that never ends..
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes in the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.