Mask-Free Policy Gets Mixed Response at Japan Graduations

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
Students wear masks during a graduation ceremony at a junior high school in Tokyo in March 2021.

The majority of the 279 graduating students at Maebashi Commercial High School marched into the gymnasium for their graduation ceremony without masks. After taking their seats, some put on masks, and all did when singing the school song.

As they exited the venue at the end of the ceremony, most were maskless again, showing a mix of smiles and tearful faces that had been otherwise hidden the past three years.

Most high schools around the nation held their graduation ceremonies on Wednesday under a new government policy that made the wearing of masks optional. But with a certain amount of vagueness in the guidelines leaving them up for interpretation by each prefecture, there was a marked divide between those who still wore masks and those who went bare-faced.

At Maebashi Commercial, principal Kiyoshi Nakamura, in his address during the ceremony, praised the graduating students for bearing the constraints of the past three years, saying, “You always kept a positive attitude and went about your business even under the restrictions imposed during the pandemic.”

One graduate, who kept his mask off while seated, said: “We’ve been wearing masks since we started going to this school, so it was a nice feeling to see my friends’ faces and think, ‘So that’s what they look like.’ I was glad to be able to graduate while seeing everyone’s smiling faces in the end.”

In a notification issued in February, the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry set down basic guidelines for graduation ceremonies stating that “in principle, no masks” are needed when entering and leaving the venue and while receiving diplomas. It also recommended that schools provide guidance to prevent prejudice or discrimination toward students who wish to continue wearing masks.

The board of education of Gunma Prefecture, where Maebashi is located, formulated guidelines that were in line with the ministry’s policy and sent them to prefectural schools and other educational entities.

‘In principle’ causes confusion

However, the ministry’s use of the term “in principle” in the policy has caused confusion in more than a few school systems.

Gifu High School was one school at which most of the students wore masks throughout their graduation ceremony on Wednesday.

In late February, the Gifu Prefecture-administered school emailed a circular to students and their parents stating that mask-wearing would be at their discretion, but advocating that they give “serious thought” in making their decision.

“Some students are preparing for the second half of entrance exams of national universities,” principal Tatsuya Ishida said. “So it was difficult to recommend that masks be removed.”

A notice issued by the Gifu prefectural board of education avoided using the phrase “in principle, no masks,” saying that any schools uncertain about what to do should consult the board.

At a meeting to formulate the prefecture’s policy, Gifu Gov. Hajime Furuta and others mentioned that they found the expression “in principle” too vague, and were perplexed that masks could be removed only for graduation ceremonies after having long been worn to protect lives.

Caution in lower grades

Moves to keep wearing masks at graduation ceremonies have also been seen among elementary and junior high schools, many of which will hold their ceremonies in mid-March and later.

The principal at a public junior high school in Yamagata Prefecture regards the “in principle, no masks” policy as having a “coercive nuance,” and in an explanatory notification to parents and students, the wording was weakened to “wearing masks will not be requested.”

In Nagano Prefecture, a public elementary school principal remains undecided, saying, “We are still thinking about how to tell the children that they don’t have to remove their masks against their will.”

An education ministry official said, “It is hoped that schools will seek understanding from students and their parents by explaining the matter carefully.”