The Importance of Being Ceremonial

It’s probably quite well known that Australians, as a people, are pretty informal creatures. We have a reputation for being friendly and laid-back. Of course there are many exceptions, but in general, Australian culture is fairly free, and there is often more than one way to behave that is perfectly fine.nohhime

It may seem obvious, but over time, I have come to realise that in Japan, things are not quite so simple. Life is usually quite structured and it seems for one reason or another, there is almost always a correct thing to say or do, and often something you have to say or do in a certain situation. In this post, I’m going to write about some of the things I’ve noticed happen in Japan.

Greetings 挨拶 (aisatsu)

Greetings are seen as extremely important, and they’re not just about saying hello. In fact, the concept of ‘hello’ as such doesn’t exist in Japanese. We often learn that konnichiwa is the equivalent of hello, but it literally means ‘this day’ as if you’re about to go on and wish the other person a good day. You can only say it from 10 or maybe 11am until 5 or 6pm. Most importantly, you can’t say it in the morning: in the morning, you have to use the ‘good morning’ greeting, ohayou gozaimasu, which is a fancy way of saying something more like ‘It’s early.’ And of course, in the evening, you say, ‘Good evening,’ or konbanwa, ‘this evening.’

This all makes sense to me, and most English speakers learning Japanese, I think. But it gives many Japanese people a headache trying to decide if they should say ‘good morning’ or ‘hello.’ It’s common to hear them as you walk past saying to their friends, ‘I made a mistake! It was supposed to be “good morning!”‘ or ‘Why did she say “hello”? Isn’t it supposed to be “good morning”?’

Then there’s the issue of, having selected a greeting, the way you say it. In general, you’re supposed to say it loudly and happily, and the idea here seems to be that it makes people feel good. There are societies at schools, usually called something like the ‘contact’ club or the ‘lifestyle’ club, of kids that all line up in rows outside the entrances to the school and scream OHAYOU GOZAIMASU!! at you, wearing signs that say ‘Let’s greet energetically.’ At a school where I’ve taught, the kids doing the best, loudest, smiliest good mornings get a special award and get mentioned on the lunchtime radio broadcast. The goal for April for that entire school, which I saw written on signs around the school, was to always greet everybody when you saw them around: teachers, students, everybody.

Opening and closing ceremonies (a.k.a. greetings)

Greetings are not just for the beginnings of interactions: saying goodbye is also considered a greeting. Maybe ‘formality’ would be a better word, but that seems so throwaway, and that is something that greetings must not be in Japan.

Anyway, no event in Japan would be complete without an opening and closing ceremony, be it a sports day, school year, or 飲み会 nomikai (drinking party). For large-scale events like the start or end of the school year, there will be an actual ceremony/assembly with the whole school/company present, and speeches and things. This might not be particular to Japan, but the particulars of it are. My first Japanese assembly felt a lot like my first time participating in a Catholic – or Anglican, come to that – church service with all this standing up and sitting down and turning to face a certain direction and responses that you have to say and appropriate times to bow. Yes, that last one might just be Japan. But Catholics do bow to the altar, too, now that I think of it, or is that just Jesuits? I don’t know my Christianities, I’m just a musician who dabbles in church choirs… either way, there’s plenty of ritual that is part of life known to everyone else in the place.

At a nomikai, it’s not a ‘ceremony’ so much as a ‘greeting,’ according to the schedule sheets I’ve seen at the work functions I’ve been to. At the start, everyone mills around their assigned seats until the boss/principal/whoever is opening the party does so by saying a few words and maybe getting someone else to do the same, and then there is a 乾杯 kampai (toast/cheers), and then the party is officially open. Your drink does not touch your lips until the kampai unless you are out to shock a few people. Then you eat, and pour drinks and receive the pouring of drinks in a particular way as a social nicety. At the end of the night, the event will be closed with the school song if it’s a school party, and then finally with one of two clapping options. There’s either the single clap, or several claps in rhythm: either way, it’s done in unison, and usually followed with a round of applause.

School classes are opened with prescribed greetings that go something like this:

S1: Stand up.

S2: Check your uniform.

S3: Now we’re going to start [X class] in the Xth period of the day.

S4: Bow/show respect.

All students (bowing): Please. (Onegaishimasu)

S1: Sit down.

and closed with something like this:

S1: Stand up.

S2: Check your uniform.

S3: I think it was good that we listened well to the teacher.

S4: Bow/show respect.

All students (bowing): Thank you. (Arigatou gozaimashita)

Meetings and announcements

Japan has a lot of meetings, or at least their schools do. My personal favourite, currently, is the pre-cleaning meeting of a group of about 4 students:

‘Now we’re going to start the pre-cleaning meeting. Let’s clean quietly and clean a lot during the allocated time. With this, let’s finish the pre-cleaning meeting. Now we’ll start cleaning.’

There’s a similar one going through a checklist at the end of cleaning time, ten minutes later. Like many of the ceremonial?/set phrases used in aisatsu and meetings, there is an assigned leader (I think it changes from week to week or day to day), and there is a set response for each thing that leader says, usually  はい!’Hai!’ (Yes!)


Did we all clean quietly?* – Yes!

Did we get the cleaning done? – Yes!

They have home room meetings when they get to school and before they go home. I haven’t seen these, but I’ve seen the track list, for want of a better expression, hanging up in a classroom. (They start and end with… yep, aisatsu.) At lunchtime there are announcements over the school radio broadcasting system, which is like a whole-school assembly in your home room, and sometimes includes things shown on a TV, like lost property or the principal giving an award to a student. There is a morning broadcast too, telling the kids things like what time it is and not to run in the corridors.

Most of these meetings that I’m talking about here are run by the kids. I don’t know about the home room ones, but it seems most parts of meetings are presented by students from the appropriate student committee, and every student is a member of one. So the lifestyle ones talk about greetings and wearing uniforms properly, and maybe handle lost property too. The school lunch committee tells you things like how to separate the orange peel from the little plastic thing that the piece of orange comes in. I don’t know what all the committees are, but every student has to belong to one.

By the way, the lunchtime broadcast includes a little ‘quiz corner’ about something to do with the day’s school lunch. Today’s at my school was about sweet potato: What are the useful nutrients of sweet potato? (They had told us about sweet potato a couple of minutes earlier.) Each group of each class has to submit their answer to the school lunch committee, and the next day, all the classes in which all groups had the right answer get mentioned on the lunch broadcast, usually followed by something that translates to, ‘That’s great, isn’t it? Let’s all try to answer correctly,’ which inexplicably cracks me up.rainy weather engrish

Some announcements seem kind of unnecessary, like, ‘Let’s not play on the escalators’ (in shopping centres etc.). I thought the same about ‘This is an escalator that goes up’  but I realised recently that maybe that’s for people with sight problems?

With so many announcements and instructions, I get the impression that the Japanese as a people like to be thoroughly instructed and like to instruct thoroughly. They also like to know the correct way of doing things, but let’s save that kettle of fish for another day.

*I’m not sure why cleaning has to be done without talking. One friend’s theory is that kids can’t vocalise and clean at the same time. Thoughts?

Actual ceremonies 

Tea ceremony 茶道 (sadou) is a ceremony. Self-evident, perhaps, but I guess I associated drinking tea with relaxing and having a nice time. It feels a bit more like a ceremony, but one where you have to participate and it’s mostly performance. It’s not very comfortable for me, although the tea and sweets are nice, and the host usually doesn’t (openly) mind very much when a foreigner makes some clumsy faux pas.

The ‘ceremony’ part of traditional weddings in Japan is a beautiful ceremony. However, the reception is also a ceremony that costs the guests a gift of $300+ each, includes 3 or 4 changes of bridal dresses that you have to notice and appreciate/applaud (it’s easy to notice, they’re all big and beautiful and different colours), a candle-lighting ceremony or some such, some other performances, and of course, the obligatory beer-pouring ritual of every Japanese party, which is going to get a post of its own. In contrast to this, Australian wedding receptions generally comprise food, drink, a few speeches, a DJ and a dance floor. They’re pretty informal and a lot of fun, so the Japanese reception was a new experience for me and to be honest, one I hope not to repeat unless it’s for a very good friend. By the way, there’s often a nijikai (二次会second party) after the formal reception, which is a much less formal affair and which you can apparently go to without attending the ceremony or the reception, if you’re invited.

I don’t completely understand the importance of being ceremonial, but I think it’s part of what makes Japan Japan. There’s something vaguely militaristic about it, but it also seems like a formalisation of the consideration of others that is so famously integral to Japanese culture. Being formalised, it’s not always earnest, but it’s part of life here that you might not see so much in other cultures.


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