Monday, March 21, 2011

An Unlikely Drinking Partner: Graduation Parties in Japan

Sitting at a table with colleagues, a mature woman hiding her age with golden jewelry and charcoal stockings approaches saying, “Let me pour you a drink.” Standing up, she fills your glass with Kirin beer. A few minutes of regulated chitchat and she walks off to find another man. Before you can sit back down to grab your allotted piece of salmon, another woman arrives. She rakes her hair with wrinkled fingers before carefully pouring from a giant bottle into your nearly full glass. She keeps the chatter brief bowing 5 1/2 times. You exchange the mannerly physicality realizing the salmon will have to wait. Three more women and a gray haired man have formed a line.

Are you a celebrity? I’m afraid not. Are you a prominent bachelor irresistible to not only cougars but also the same sex? Perhaps, but not in the case. You are a 先生/teacher, specifically at a top academic 高校/high school. You are attending the 卒業式宴会/Graduation Party hosted by the Parent Teachers Association.

Each year, on the evening after graduation your attendance is required at the city’s finest hotel banquet hall. Fortunately, you don’t have to pay, because you already did. Mandatory monthly ‘party fund’ dues cover the evening’s expenses. Though, parents of the graduates each paid 5000円($60) to get you drunk.

Let the Fun Begin

For the teachers who have guided the students for the entirety of their 3 years in high school, the night is primed for celebration. The Japanese love a good drinking party with co-workers. Yet these affairs are exclusive engagements where ‘plus ones’ are outlawed. Consequently irony flows over the rim, when protective parents are watching every move and listening to each word as you, while intoxicated, attempt to remain professional.

This party functions like most 沿海. Most guests arriving 20 minutes early, check in to receive their official name badge and program. Everyone waits patiently whisper in the corridor as they review the seating chart. At precisely 6:30pm, the doors swing open and everyone pretensiously “ahhhs” over the complimentary bouqet of flowers on their chair. The master of ceremonies, always a tall attractive mother, welcomes guests and introduces the speakers. It’s not an official party until you have key note speeches.

To escape the boredom, I set up my 携帯/cell phone’s timer and make bets with those next to me on how long each speech will run. Luckily for us, the 校長先生/Principal, and members of the alumni association all average 6 minutes. Might I add, not a single drop of liquor is consumed until the official かんぱい/toast, another elongated minute speech, is delivered on stage. Everyone lifts up their plastic shot glass and downs their miniscule drop of 日本酒/sake. In past years, drinkers number 95%, though this year it seems as many are opting to skip over the drinking and just get the formalities out of the way.

Rounds of food are placed on the rotating chinese top on each table. Often, each dish has been divided into exactly the right number of pieces for each person. Though, luckily none of the food needs to be warm, so guests can mind the interruption of pouring parents. As bottles are emptied, servers quietly replace them. Though the only liquids available are Kirin Beer and unsweetened tea. Though, strangely at one point a mother approaches with a tray of whiskey and 諸チュ/shochu, a Japanese distilled liquor.

After a half an hour of mingling, a slide-show of pictures and videos from the past year appears on a gigantic screen, but with so much alcohol having been consumed, this gets ignored. The party continues until the last half and hour, when the entire congregation sings the school song, an old man serves as a cheerleader beckoning the audience to scream and clap their hands, and finally a flower ceremony for the homeroom teachers of the graduating students.

Before you can dash out, you have to bow to a row of parents who have assembled in front and out of the door to respectfully see you on your journey. Most teachers will secretly meet up with their friends and commence with the “real” party at a local snack bar or izakiya.

“I don’t understand why the parents don’t want to be with their children,” remarks a co-worker. This is often the case in America, where families will gather at a fancy restaurant to celebrate graduation. In America, actual parties occur over the summer and are an excuse to receive monetary gifts and drink for the first time with friends and family. There may be a party, but it would be exclusive for teachers and their plus-ones, often hosted by the local ring or gown supplier as a means to “stay in business.” American teachers are often placed in the same situation as the Japanese when they are invited to graduation parties. Though these, in many cases, will feature a student’s entire family, all of their friends, with most of them drinking. This is why most teachers kindly refrain from attending, though some option only if they use “safety in numbers” and arrive with several colleagues. The Japanese teacher doesn’t have that luxury, but at least it’s not in front of students, and it’s the parents who are pouring their drinks.

“I do not like this party,” said a co-worker. While this is not a complaint against parents, it’s simply an argument against the unusual circumstance of the occasion. Those unfamiliar with Japanese culture, should realize that alcohol is not seen as taboo. Teachers freely discuss their favorite drinks with students and openly comment on how “hungover” they are with co-workers. At anytime after 5pm, you can see a parade of drunken well-tailored men, and on the weekends it’s not unlikely to see an 80 year old drunkily collapse on the sidewalk.

It’s also one of the rare cases of “popularity.” While some teachers act as quarterbacks amidst a huddle of listeners, others catch up on their sleep dozing off at their table. This graduation party is clearly evidence of what teachers contribute the most to their students. Though, just like America, those who coach sports receive the most attention. However, parents also seem to adore those notorious for dishing out “tuff love.” Clearly, some teachers enjoy the chance to boast or receive their fair share of overdue ‘butt-kissing.’ The problem lies in how the teachers want to “party,” but have to remain “on the clock” until they can start the unofficial, parent-free 二期会 second party.

This form of graduation party is a Japanese tradition. Though due to its unsettling formalities, the custom is changing. While 青森高校/Aomori High School continues the tradition, attendance from parents has dwindled over the years. 青森南高校/Aomori South High School abandoned the custom in 20___. While, 富山高校/Toyama High School has found a solution by hosting an alcohol-free parent, teacher and student gala in the gym. Afterwars is when the teachers gather together to drunkilly wash away their hard work and guidance.

If you fancy older women, but are too shy to approach them, my advice is to become a high school in Japan. For only once a year, do parents and teacher gather to celebrate student success over glass bottles of liquor.

Got Flowers?

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