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Coronavirus outbreak forces changes to Japan's traditional spring graduation ceremonies

Parents and guardians line up along a fence by the athletic ground of the No. 14 junior high school in Tokyo's Adachi Ward to watch the school's graduation ceremony on March 19, 2020. Attendance at the ceremony was restricted to one guest per graduating student as a measure to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. (Mainichi/Shinnosuke Kyan)

TOKYO -- March in Japan is typically graduation season, when parents pack school gymnasiums to watch their children take the stage, accept their certificates, and take another step forward in their young lives. This year, however, the novel coronavirus has forced school boards across Japan to reconsider how to conduct the ceremonies without risking group transmission.

Most junior high schools in the Tokyo metropolitan area had their graduation events on March 19, with a number of local authorities deciding to stage outdoor ceremonies as a way to balance the desires of parents and guardians with the infection prevention measures.

The No. 14 junior high school in Tokyo's Adachi Ward was one such place. March 19 found parents, guardians and students sitting in folding chairs on the athletic ground outside the school, listening to Principal Hiroaki Nanba as he told the children, "I will never forget the sight of all of you, so full of energy. Thank you for the last three years."

While the ceremony went ahead, there were some rules. Only one parent or guardian was allowed to attend per student. Everyone else, if they wanted to see the ceremony, had to watch from behind the fence that marks the boundary between the school and a neighboring park. Shuji Maeda, a 57-year-old father, was one such person, lined up at the fence and filming his eldest son with his smartphone.

"Limiting the number of guests can't be helped," he said. "And seen from another angle, this is really a graduation ceremony our son won't forget."

Student Takumi Okada, 15, told the Mainichi Shimbun with a smile, "The weather is great, and I'm happy my mother could see me graduate."

There were also some local bodies in the Tokyo metropolitan area that opted for the more traditional gymnasium ceremony, though policies on who could attend differed. In Nakano Ward, two guests were allowed per graduating student. The ward said that it wanted to give as many people as possible the chance to celebrate the once-in-a-lifetime experience that is graduation, while also taking thorough measures to prevent coronavirus transmission at the events. Edogawa Ward, on the other hand, limited guests to one per graduate, stating, "We want to avoid gathering large groups of people as much as we can."

Meanwhile, Sumida Ward did not permit any parents to attend the ceremonies, declaring that it could not guarantee sufficient space between people at schools with many graduating students. Instead, parents and guardians will receive a DVD video of the event plus a photo of their child receiving their graduation certificate. This measure will also be applied to those who will miss their children's elementary school graduations scheduled for March 24.

"We would like people to understand that these measures are being implemented for the sake of the children's health and safety," the ward stated.

Attendance restrictions have been mixed across Japan as well.

In Sapporo, capital of Japan's northernmost prefecture Hokkaido, ceremony attendance was limited to graduating students and school staff. In Yokohama, south of Tokyo, only a very limited number of parents and guardians were allowed at the events, such as the local PTA chairperson. At the other end of the scale, two guests were allowed per graduating student for primary school and junior high school graduations in the city of Fukuoka, in southwestern Japan.

In the city of Kyoto, in western Japan, schools were instructed to "keep the number of parents participating as low as possible," but no specific figure was given. In central Japan's Nagoya, schools were told to restrict attendance by parents and guardians to prevent further infections, but specific measures were left up to each institution.

(Japanese original by Akira Okubo, City News Department)

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