Navigating Japanese Ceremonies

            During your coming posting in Japan, you will be attending numerous ceremonies and events. These events will follow a predictable and strictly adhered to pattern that is uniform across Japan. It is possible that your duties will involve participating in one of these ceremonies. The following guide, based on Hymes’ (1974) SPEAKING model of ethnographic analysis, will give you a detailed understanding of the norms that dictate the opening and closing ceremonies that bookend any event here in Japan.

Setting and Scene

You are at a scheduled event somewhere in Japan. Perhaps it is a festival, an awards ceremony, a school graduation, a community concert, a company induction ceremony, groundbreaking on a new building, or a retirement party for a colleague. The nature of the specific ceremony is not important. Whatever the event, it will invariably have an opening and a closing ceremony, even if the event is relatively short. In Japanese society, these opening ceremonies (kaikaishiki) and closing ceremonies (heikaishiki) signify and delineate the perceived chronological boundaries of an event. What might seem surprising an outside observer is that these opening and closing ceremonies themselves must be formally opened and closed. The protocol is fastidiously adhered to, with a level of formality that sometimes may seem inappropriate to the casual nature of the event being started or finished. The practice serves a purpose in Japanese society, which has an extremely high focus on uncertainty avoidance and seeks out “maximum predictability” as a cultural goal (Hofstede, 2001). It is very important to not simply be on time for any event, but to be early. If the event starts at 10:00, the opening ceremony will begin precisely one second after 10:00.


The participants are a combination of at least two individuals and an audience. One individual is the ceremony opener/closer. They are someone involved with the event but not of high status, such as a vice-principal or member of an organizing committee. This person will take the stage or podium and formally begin the ceremony. Another individual, who is typically someone of high status such as a principal or committee chair, will follow them. This person, the ceremony speaker, will make a very short speech. The existing hierarchy of the institution holding the ceremony typically predetermines the speaker. Finally, the opener/closer will return to the stage to conclude the ceremony. Typically, these same people will preside over both opening and closing ceremonies. Audience members in attendance are observers, and will give the speaker their silence and attention even though it is a fairly predictable and routine act.


The purpose of both opening and closing ceremonies are to give the audience and participants a clear and official understanding that the event is now underway, or that the event is now complete. The establishment of shared certainty is part of this. After the closing ceremony ends, there may be more clean-up work to do, or an after party to attend, but the participants are all aware that they are no longer involved in the so-called event. This outward understanding and delineation of “event time” and “non-event time” is the end which the ceremonies serve to bring about.

Act Sequence

Opening and closing ceremonies are typically short, often very short, in the range of one to three minutes. Depending on the size of the event, they may feature a short speech, a song performance, or an oath of sportsmanship, but can be as simple as a few words by the participants, which function as performative speech acts in bringing about the start of the event (Austin, 1962). These words of the opener/closer that “perform” the ceremony do not deviate significantly from a typical boilerplate phrasing that is shared and repeated at a wide variety of events across Japan. Here is a prototypical example of a basic standard phrasing for an opening ceremony, this one for a fictional school festival:

Opener/Closer: kore yori shibahama chuugakkou no dai ni-juu-go kai gakkousai no kaikaishiki wo hajimemasu. (From this point, we will begin the opening ceremony of the 25th annual Shibahama Junior High School Festival.)
Speaker:(Thanks those in attendance, comments on the weather, thanks any sponsors or assistants, requests for participants to be careful, encourages participants to do their best, etc.)
Opener/Closer: kore de shibahama chuugakkou no dai ni-juu-go kai gakkousai no kaikaishiki wo owarimasu. (This now completes the opening ceremony of the 25th annual Shibahama Junior High School festival.)


The spirit of these ceremonies is serious, with speakers who take the stage typically wearing suits, even at a sporting event. The tone of the opener/closer is flat, without any particular inflection or flourish in his or her speech. The speaker may take a tone of encouragement for the participants, or optimism for the events to come. The speaker will likely make some references to commonly shared knowledge, and make their speech broadly appealing if not particularly memorable.


The speakers in an opening or closing ceremony speak standard Japanese (hyoujungo) in a formal register. They will use both respect language (sonkeigo) and humble language, or kenjougo, to express their gratitude and polite deference to the participants, spectators, and honored guests of the event (Shibatani, 2005). While it is possible that a non-standard dialect might be used by the speaker, the opener/closer will adhere to hyoujungo. A microphone will most likely be used, even if it does not seem necessary due to a small crowd or small space.

Norms of Interaction and Interpretation

Gestures and proxemics figure very importantly within the highly ritualized nature of these opening and closing ceremonies. Both opener/closer and speaker must make precise, purposeful bows several times during each of their actions. The opener/closer will bow toward the stage (as a sign of respect for the event or institution) before ascending to the dais. Before fully approaching the podium or the microphone, he or she will bow again several times, once back toward area where the speaker and other event managers are seated, once toward the audience, and if there are parents or other honored guests seated in a specific area, once more toward them. This series of bows will be repeated in reverse order when the opener/closer leaves the stage, and will be repeated both by the speaker and again by the opener/closer in the closing of the ceremony.


These ceremonies are rituals. No one expects deviation from the norm, and in fact, surprise or uniqueness seems to be avoided. It almost seems as if they are designed to be unmemorable, for maintaining the norms and precedents of this societal function, leaving mutually held assumptions intact, and feathers unruffled. Even the speaker’s speech, while up to him or her, rarely includes jokes, and never approaches anything more than a recitation of a prepared speech. Any type of unique performance by the speaker, or playing to the audience, would be an exception to the norm.

While it is impossible to predict the exact pattern of every type of event across an entire country, there is an extremely high chance that the preceding factors will define any ceremony that you attend in Japan. They all follow this general pattern, in order to achieve the goals of keeping society going, of sustaining the reality shared and expected by the participants (Wardhaugh, 2010, p. 254). These instructions will give you the information necessary to share in these same expectations.


Austin, J.L. (1962). How to Do Things with Words. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Hymes, D. H. (1974). Foundations in Sociolinguistics: An Ethnographic Approach. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Hofstede, G. (2001). Culture’s Consequences: Comparing Values, Behaviors, Institutions, and Organizations Across Nations. Second Edition, Thousand Oaks CA: Sage Publications.

Shibatani, M. (1990). The Languages of Japan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wardhaugh, (2010). An Introduction to Sociolinguistics. (6th ed.). Oxford: Basil Blackwell Ltd.


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