“Everyone, stand up!” a voice roars into the microphone. In near-unison the audience snaps to attention. “Bow!” The rustle of clothing is heard as hundreds of backs bend to an uncomfortable 65 degree angle. “Sit down!” A mass of bodies return to their seats with Borg-like alacrity and synchronization. A speaker approaches a makeshift stage fashioned from wooden boxes covered with a tarp the color of dying grass. En route he turns and bows to the group of teachers seated to the right of the stage. Upon reaching the top of the stage, he faces the Japanese flag and bows. Then he faces the audience, and gives another stiff, 45 degree angled bow. Reaching into his pocket, he pulls out a folded sheet of rice paper from which he commences to read a speech. Verbatim. After what seems like an interminable stream of hollow words, he stumbles to the end of his dully delivered speech, and descends from the stage. But not before parceling out crisp bows to the flag, the teachers, and the assembled audience of parents and members of the community. Welcome to the Japanese junior high school graduation ceremony! Please check your happiness and sanity at the door; you won’t be needing them for the next two hours.

As I sat there amongst my fellow teachers, snapping to attention when ordered to do so, bowing (half-heartedly) when the voice barked into the microphone, my mind drifted far and wide. I longed to be in another place—a padded psycho ward, perhaps?—and not in this auditorium listening to speech after speech after speech—after speech!— delivered woodenly by people I neither knew nor cared to know. Fortunately, Jesus (brought to you by TBN) smiled down upon me, and within a little over two hours the ordeal was over. The moment the last teary-eyed, diploma-gripping student streamed out of the gym, I jumped from my seat—not before bowing, of course— and raced back to the staff room. I immediately opened myself up to the information superhighway, and drowned out the horrors of too much bowing with a barrage of news on Anna Nicole Smith and suicide bombings.

If you haven’t guessed it by now, ceremonies in Japan (of almost any kind) are very serious, very solemn events. A bit too serious for my taste. This was a graduation ceremony for a JUNIOR HIGH SCHOOL, and yet I felt as though I were witnessing a military funeral procession. I’m surprised someone didn’t bring out the Irish bag pipes. American graduations, or at least the ones I’ve attended in California, in comparison, are quite raucous affairs. Rowdy, even. Then again, everything in America is rowdy, for better or worse (Bush, I’m looking in your direction). I understand this is Japan, and that it’s neither fair nor realistic to expect ceremonies here to resemble those in America, but would it hurt to for someone—anyone!—to crack a smile once in a while? This is supposed to be a time of celebration, of merriment. The perfect time for smiles! Or at least less bowing…