THROUGH YONSEI EYES: The virtue of goodbye

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Late March and early April are times of great change within the Japanese school system. In March, the students have their graduation ceremonies. They are serious affairs filled with tears and stoicism. It’s difficult to move on from a middle school.

Mika Osaki enjoys the seasonal sakura blossoms in Japan. ­
photo by Kai Kojimoto

In Japan, school does not end after the last class. The entire student body is usually heavily involved in club activities that extend into evening hours and weekends year-round.

Homeroom teachers are more like a third parent, and are in touch with the student’s academic and personal lives. In many ways, they know the students better than their own parents do.

The schools encourage a strong sense of solidarity amongst each homeroom class, and there are often school-wide competitions between the classes. Students will stay together through elementary and middle school, and then disperse to different high schools.

Middle school graduations are therefore a profoundly bittersweet time in a young person’s life. I was completely unprepared to see so many students and even teachers openly weeping. My experiences with graduations in the states were always joyous affairs with messages of hope and possibility. But for middle school students in Japan, it represents a breakdown of a major support system, the disbanding of their lifelong friendship groups, and the loss of parent figures they spent the majority of their time with. They are forced to leave these things behind, and travel into the unknown of high school alone.

April does not bring an end to the sadness of this season. In Japan, a certain number of teachers change schools every year. Depending on seniority, teachers generally transfer every two to eight years. There are many pros to this system. It prevents stagnancy, complacency and frustration with an individual system. However, there is also a lot of grief that comes with this. The teachers do not have a say in when or where they go. It is usually a complete surprise that they find out just a few weeks before it’s time to transfer.

Because the teachers become deeply involved with every aspect of their students lives, it can be extremely painful to move on from a place that has become home. After graduation, there is a huge banquet to say goodbye to transferring teachers. With my limited Japanese, I couldn’t understand a lot of the speeches. However, I could understand the somber looks on their faces, and the tears they shed as they thanked the people who also dedicate their lives to the children they love so much. The ones who will continue on in their place.

This year was particularly hard because one third of the staff was transferred, more than double the usual number. Some of the teachers I had grown the closest to during the past eight or so months I’ve lived here were out of my life overnight.

Witnessing these profound changes and painful goodbyes somewhat from the sidelines, I remember thinking how absolutely senseless it seemed. I knew logically that there are pros to this system, but when you see the human impact of it first hand… it’s just painful. Why create these temporary situations of close solidarity only to break them down year after year?

Mika Osaki is a Yonsei and a recent college graduate. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, she grew up deeply involved in SF’s Japantown community. She is currently living in Tottori city, Japan as an English teacher with the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program. She can be readched at sydnieosaki@gmail.com.

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