Japan is famous for holding a holiday for just about anything. These holidays emphasize the important things in life that should be celebrated. They mark the changing seasons, important life events, or are simply there for everyone to come together as a family and friends to just have fun. So it should come as no surprise that in the culture where health and wellness play an important part, Japan has a dedicated holiday for just that - the Health and Sports Day (体育の日, Taiiku-no-hi). Commemorating the opening of the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics, today Taiiku-no-hi is observed annually on the second Monday of October.
Wait, Summer Olympics in October?! The Olympics in Tokyo of 1964 were moved to October to avoid the Japanese rainy season that is often followed by the extreme summer heat. So to commemorate this historical event, the very first Taiiku-no-hi was held on October 10, 1966. It was set as this date until year 2000, where it was moved to become the second Monday in October. This year, 2015, it is held on October 12th; coincidentally, the same day as Canada’s Thanksgiving, where everyone also gets together as a family, but instead of health or sports, it is the day about food, food and more food.
Today Taiiku-no-hi marks more than just the ‘64 Tokyo Olympic memory. In addition, it is around this time schools throughout the country will choose to hold their annual 運動会 (Undou-kai), bringing together an entire community for an all-day event of bonding, fun and some friendly competition.
Undou-kai, lit. translated as athletics meet, is essentially a sports festival similar to the North American Field Day. It is a compulsory school event; held by kindergarten, elementary, middle and high schools throughout the entire country—with students’ participation being mandatory. Divided into two major teams, red vs white, Undou-kai becomes somewhat of a mini Olympics event; full of traditional and nontraditional sports-related contests.
Conventionally Undou-kai is held on Saturday or Sunday, on the weekend of or leading up to the Taiiku-no-hi. The date here varies depending on the school. As a matter of fact, some schools choose to break out of the trend and hold the event in May, in order to lessen the disruptions of the fall semester. You see, as soon as the Unodu-kai ends, the students start to prepare for the Bunka-sai (文化祭, Cultural Festival), which is held in November. This leaves the students with very little time to concentrate on their studies as the school year draws to an end—Japanese school year ends in March.
So, how much effort goes into the preparation? More than you can imagine. Teachers and students prepare and practice practically everyday for weeks leading up to the event. A lot of classes get shifted or canceled altogether as a result. The time spent in preparation is all part of the experience. The extensive planning, training, and practices in the 蒸し暑い (mushiatsui, ‘hot and humid’) Japanese September weather strengthens the bond that Undou-kai works hard to cultivate among the students and their hard-working dedicated teachers.
The Undou-kai festival traditionally takes place on the schools’ 運動場 (undoujou, sports field) grounds, which in the days prior to the event gets a complete makeover. Students and teachers spend hours preparing the field to have it fit for the Undou-kai standards. Freshly painted white chalk lines, flags from all over the world hung on the rope and stretched across the field are all a part of these great preparations. Surrounding the sports field, large canopies branded with the school’s name are being put up by the teachers and the PTA volunteers. With so much time spent on weeks-long preparations and practices, the expectations cannot be less than perfect. If you didn’t know better, you’d think it was going to be televised!
On the day of the event, everyone—students, teachers, parents, and community spectators—arrive at the hosting school’s ground at 8:30 am. The students are dressed in their standard school sports uniform (usually blue shorts and a white poloshirt with the school’s emblem), and a white/red reversible hat (白赤帽子, shiro-aka-boushi). The hat is important as it will indicate the colour of the team the students belong to. The teachers are often seen wearing bright matching team t-shirts to stand out in the crowd amongst the excited visitors and parents.
The event starts with a student parade, few short speeches from the principal and the PTA, and the national anthem followed by raising the Japanese flag. At this point the main event is kicked off with yet another tradition of performing a short warm up, to a piano music played over the loudspeaker system and lead by the students, known as ラジオ体操 (rajio taisou, calisthenics). Rajio taisou is a stretching routine developed by the government and broadcasted daily, early morning over the NHK radio. It’s popularity began soon after the WWII, in order to boost the health driven culture. Today it is a must-do stretching routine prior to performing any sports related activity.
After 5 minutes of rajio taisou stretches, the games, races and other fun, lighthearted activities begin. There are a number of games that are traditionally present at every Undou-kai across Japan. These games are 綱引き (tsunahiki, tug-of-war), ムカデ競走 (mukade kyousou, ‘multi-legged’ race), 組体操 (kumitaisou, gymnastic formation), and, of course, a good old-fashioned relay. Here are some of other games that you most surely will find at the event:
Tama-ire is a game played by all members of team red vs team white. Each team gets a lot of small beanbags in the colour of their respective team, and a bamboo basket attached to a high pole. The competition is to see who can get the most of their beanbags into their own basket in a given time. The game ends by counting the number of beanbags in each basket over a speakerphone. (On a side note, one of the schools I was teaching in—to promote English studies—the principal had the students count the beanbags in English!)
Kibasen, translated as cavalry fights, is a game of piggyback fighting. Each team forms mini teams of four, where the three lock hands and form the horse to carry the fourth one wearing a bandana. The object of the game is to charge at your opponent with all might, colliding in an arm fight, trying to get the bandana off or knock the opponent off his or her horse entirely. Although this game is dangerous and results in back, arm and head injuries, it is also incredibly popular, and often considered the highlight of the event.
Odori or dancing, involves students coming together as one in a large choreographed dance crew. Students perform dances to songs that vary from traditional to fun and upbeat modern pop music. More often it is traditional, with one that seems to be the popular choice. “Soran Bushi” (ソーラン節) is a classic song sung by the fishermen hailing from the Hokkaido region. It is very energetic, and creates quite the effect when danced by the entire student body.
Around noon there is a lunch intermission, where each students gets together with his or her family to enjoy the grand festival bentos their mothers prepared at 6 o’clock in the morning. These bentos are famous for being overly extravagant and typically include rice or sekihan (赤飯, lit. 'red rice'—rice boiled together with red beans), fish, tempura, vegetables, sushi and much more.
The event comes to an end in the late afternoon. At this time both teams would have completed all the games, races, and contests—earning team points. The points here are then calculated, and the winning team, red or white, is awarded with a trophy and a lavish flag of the winner. Then more speeches follow, and the Japanese flag is lowered; thus, ending the event.
After the event, everyone: parents, PTA, teachers, and of course students—really everyone—stay behind to help and clean-up the entire field. Everything—from chairs, canopies, musical and sport equipment, to flags and decorations—are all dismantled and put away. This way, in a matter of an hour or two, the entire field is returned back to normal, as if nothing ever happened at all.
A lot of work and dedication goes into preparing an event of this magnitude. Undou-kai is perhaps one of the most looked forward to events, and is definitely the highlight of the school year for most students. The festival brings the entire student body together as one. Working closely for weeks leading up to the event, relying on each other as a team during the games, teaches students cooperation and developing deeper bonds and friendships. After all, it is not about who is the fastest or the strongest, but which team had the best teamwork ethic. Without it games like Tsunahiki (tug-of-war), Mukade Kyousou (‘multi-legged’ race), Kumitaisou (human pyramid) or the thrilling Kibasen (cavalry fights) would not be possible to pull off.