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Monday, September 22, 2014

Good Sports

Hello there,

Third from the right is clearly the best

     This is another long overdue post but speech contest prep has required me to stay late every day for the past couple of weeks so I've been a bit preoccupied.

      Today I wanted to reflect a bit on what my school's Undoukai was like. Undoukai (運動会), also know as Sports Festival, is an annual event which typically takes place after the start of the second semester at all educational institutions from Kindergarten to High School. The entire student body (within one school) is divided into various groups wherein they compete in a series of physical challenges for a ceremonious trophy at the end.
      This actually wasn't my first Undoukai (having attended Kofu Chu's two years ago) but it was the first time I saw my own kids compete. We arrive in August through the JET programme which normally means that the first big school event we see is the Undoukai. That year however, to avoid conflict with the many other schools within my town, the junior high school moved their Undoukai to May - just a month after the new school year. Had I only stayed for one year I wouldn't have been able to see it; fortunately that wasn't the case.
     I arrived to school that Saturday at my usual time of 8:10; the sun was out and bright that morning. Being well aware that I was going to spend an entire day outside I spent a bit of time dousing myself in sunscreen. The entire staff (myself included) was wearing our newly made school T-shirts bearing the slogan, "全力赤中," which doesn't translate so well directly but sounds good in Japanese.* Preparations had been made in the days leading up to event so at about 8:50am I made my way to the field where I awaited further instruction.
     Nearly every teacher other than myself had a job or a purpose for that day, which made me feel all the worse when I was included in the pre-event huddle and radio exercises**. I had asked one of my JTEs if there was something I should be doing to help as no one had mentioned it to me. She explained that I was there as a guest and I should simply be enjoying it. With that point duly noted I picked a seat under the pop-up canopy reserved for staff and waited. As with anything bearing even the slightest resemblance to an official event there is an announcement which commences it.
     The first events were 100m races between small groups of students. Since my entire school was only divided into a red or blue group the events were comprised of teams that included all class levels, 1st through 3rd. I'm not sure how the competitors were picked for each individual sport but it was definitely not split by class. Some of my students surprised me with their athleticism while others I had pegged as likely being adept at their various challenges.
    Next up was the Mukaden, which is a clever pun on the word for centipede (mukade, ムカデ) and the second kanji from the word for relay race (den, 伝). It's not as complicated as the last sentence made it sound, but if you recognize both words it gives one a chuckle. In any case, Mukaden is basically a three-legged race, but with about 10 kids tied together at once making it scientifically 33% more hilarious.
   One of the most interesting events was called, "栄光の架け橋" which roughly translated comes out as "Glory Bridge".*** The idea is that the groups make a bridge out of their backs by kneeling on the ground side by side while the nominated runner walks across this people-bridge in a race to the finish line. The challenge though is that the distance they have to run is longer than the number of people they can use to make a bridge. This means that as soon as one is stepped across that person immediately needs to run ahead and form a new stepping stone so-to-speak. It was wildly entertaining.
     Following these events were demonstrations done by the boys and the girls. The girls had a dance called, "えっちょうー!えっちょうー!," a traditional dance that was modernized with the help of some contemporary music. The boys later removed shirts and performed a series of increasingly dangerous stunts that involved human pyramids and lifting of people to ridiculous heights. After that there was a tug-o-war between the two groups. They split it up into multiple sessions so each team would swap out members successively until the entire student body participated.

Then it was lunch.

     After the break there were more races, relays, and a jump rope contest, which was split between class and group. Each team's members were divided into their respective classes and competed as a whole to see who could get the most jumps in. We saw one team go as high as 39, some that courageously brought home a 0, and everything in between.
     After all the events finished it was time to announce winners. Trophies were handed out per individual achievement as well as group performance. Another category was the banner design. Each of the classes designed their own Sports Day banner and everyone in the audience voted on which one they liked the best.
     Excluding the enkai, I spent a bit of time thinking about this whole day. At first it seemed identical to what I experienced at Mitsuko's school. It was similar in structure, there were similar events, and I also had nothing really to do but watch. The fact that they were my kids though changed how I felt about it. I became intensely interested in their performance towards the end of the day especially during the relay.
     I started to wonder what had changed. The first half of the day was interesting and fun enough, but it didn't affect me so immensely until I really thought about it. I realized that I was moved by them. The displays of athleticism, the level of cooperation, and the spirit of community that bound them was something I never had at any level of my education.
     Weeks beforehand I had been asking my students if they were looking forward to it. The answer was unanimously: No. I was caught off-guard. It does take a lot out of you, and they had to spend quite a few weeks practicing for all their events so I could understand why perhaps they were less enthusiastic about it, but a solid no? From everyone? It was hard to fathom. I did ask a few students afterwards and the answers all changed. I remember being 13/14 and never being able to admit when I actually liked something out of fear that it would be mocked so when they responded with, "It was kind of fun," I knew what it meant. I don't think they'll understand what a powerful experience it was until they don't have it anymore. If only we could learn this before it were too late.
     I'm going to miss my kids as well. That's what Sports Day somehow managed to bring forward into my immediate attention. It was likely less to do with Sports Day itself but rather the fact we were all in one place, at one time, making the most our of rapidly dwindling time together. There will be a time when I never see them again.

And that is a sad thing to realize on such a fun day.


* So Zenryoku (全力) means "All one's strength" and Akachu (赤中) is the abbreviation of our school. It's actually similar to how we shortened names of schools back home. I went to Pacifica High School, but it was just as common to say Pacifica High. This is a similar idea to when Akasaki Junior High School (赤碕中学校), just gets shortened to Akachu. It's a nickname for the school. So that plus Zenryoku means something like... Full Strength Akachu! Or All Our Best Akachu! In any way that one wishes to translate it, it comes out as sounding very much like a slogan or catchphrase, which is the idea.

** Radio exercises were something that originated in America as it turns by the Met Life Insurance company in 1922. It never took off there but a group of Japanese workers visiting Japan took the idea back home and it flourished. It basically involves light group exercising set to similarly light music. Since 1928 (used first to commemorate Emperor Hirohito) Japan has been broadcasting radio exercises (ラジオ体操) over the air. There was a brief moment during the occupation of Allied forces when Japan was ordered to stop doing it out of fear that it was too militaristic. As soon as they regained independence they went right back to it and it remained popular for many decades. Nowadays it's mostly forgotten but is still used at some old companies and especially at events like Undoukai where it largely serves as a way to encourage group activity, and a pinch of exercise.

*** That first kanji comes out as "glory" and the second part actually means "suspension bridge". I'll let you put that together in English however you want to.


  1. Nice post. Both yours and mine were pretty similar, but we didn't have the glory bridge. Also, since our school is small we only had three teams.

    1. Thanks! Was the staff assigned to a particular team for yours? I was hoping for that; it would've made it a lot more fun.