Undoukai: Japan’s Sports Day

A 6th-grader comes up to the podium on the outside edge of the track lanes, and faces the lines of students in the middle of the pitch. She begins rhythmically, bending her knees, standing up, bending, waving her arms around, and arching her back to stretch. All of the students follow, and so do some teachers. Parents only watch, taking pictures of their students doing exactly what they once did a generation ago. Some look interested, some seem to be more interested in the shade that keeps them out of the sun.

The morning exercise is called rajio taisou, ‘radio calisthenics,’ a morning activity popular ever since WW1. After WW2 it was prohibited by the Occupation (American forces) for being too “militaristic” in nature, but the Japanese revised it and brought it back some years later, and it has spread everywhere in Japan. Sometimes, if you wake up early enough, you might see some construction workers lined up doing rajio taisou to wake their bodies up and to promote camaraderie.


Under the blue sky and the fluttering student-drawn pictures, the students begin their annual ritual that is said to be distinctively Japanese and a part of the making of their cultural identity.

This annual ritual is called undoukai, a “movement gathering,” or Sports Day, in American nomenclature. Every school in Japan has been doing it for years, and it is an embedded part of Japanese culture. Participation by the parents are pretty much required, else you will be silently ridiculed for not showing up.

Students march around in perfect lines. The Japanese athletes march the same way in the Olympic opening ceremonies: in clean files, despite the country having no real military in decades.

(The Japanese march in front of the Emperor and his wife at the Nagano Olympics opening ceremony).

The students are divided into two groups: shiro and aka, white and red, the colors of their Hinomaru flag. They compete against each other fervently in games that have mostly remained the same over the years, with some new games thrown in the mix.

The common games are:

  • Relay (riree): A must in every undoukai. Usually, it’s the final game of the day. As a bonus, the undoukai I went to had an extra race with three teams: the teachers, the parents and the fastest students.
  • Tug-of-war (tsunahiki): They apparently thought only the Japanese did it. I told them they did it in the US, too.
  • Sprints (kakekko or tokyousou): 100m foot races, tallied individually.
  • Basket game (tama-ire): Throwing balls into a high basket. The team with the most balls in the basket wins. Sometimes they put the basket on the back of a teacher or a graduate who runs around the field.
  • Cheerleading battle (ouen gassen): The students make up their cheers and practice them until perfection. They used to have human pyramids, but they stopped when parents complained of their children’s injuries. Judges decide the winner.
  • Giant ball roll (ootama korogashi): Rules vary, but the basic idea is pushing a ball up and down the field as quickly as possible. Sometimes it’s simply rolling, sometimes students have to roll it above their heads.

An older man who went to the undoukai told me he did most of the games that day back in his heyday, but he regretted the disappearance of two notable games from the standard undoukai menu: boutaoshi and kibasen.

  • Boutaoshi (pole battle): Each team aims to pull/push the other team’s pole. A chaotic game where students fight their way through the other team’s wall to the pole and try to knock it down. A student is on top of the pole, so he will fall down with the pole. Potentially dangerous, which was the reason it gradually went away.

(Go to 7:30 mark in the video for the battle. The video is of college students, but the rules are the same)

  • Kibasen (joust): Three students hold a student (the rider) up, and they try to knock the other team’s riders off.


After all of the games, the scores are tallied up and the winner is announced and the winning team receive a trophy.

The parents all watch the games from the sidelines, eating bento lunchbox prepared beforehand, sitting on their picnic sheets, and hoping their children doesn’t embarrass them.

There are no individual accolades anywhere in the event. No most valuable player awards like seen in the USA. It is all about the group: and I believe this is the ultimate function of undoukai: to promote collectivism and to forge unity among the Japanese. And to give the Japanese a common experience that they share as a cultural entity.


Words to live by

From Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, V:5.

Show to others those qualities, which are altogether in your power. These are sincerity, gravity, endurance of labor, aversion to pleasure, contentment with what you have and with a very few things, benevolence, frankness, no love of excess, and generosity of spirit. Do you not see how many qualities you are immediately able to exhibit, in which there is no excuse of natural incapacity and unfitness, and yet you still remain voluntarily below the mark? Or are you compelled through being defectively furnished by nature to murmur, and to be stingy, and to flatter, and to find fault with your poor body, and to try to please people, and to make great display, and to be so restless in your mind?

“Faulting faults with your poor body” was an issue even 2000 years ago. Materialism seems to had been a thing back then as well.

Kokoro’s Beach in Kamakura

I just began reading the book that every student has to read as an academic assignment, probably in middle school or high school, Natsume Soseki’s classic Kokoro. Like American students who hates Kate Chopin’s The Awakening because they are forced to read it for school, not to enjoy it, everyone in Japan seems to either think it boring, or simply sad.


(My copy of Kokoro‘s uninteresting cover)

While I haven’t even gone a third through the book yet, I can already see the sadness in the story. However, I won’t bore you with the depressing details here. What caught my attention is the location of the narrator-protagonist and his beloved nameless “Sensei.”

He meets Sensei only by chance, randomly through curiosity. The narrator was swimming alone at a beach in Kamakura, about 60km/40miles south of Tokyo when he saw a peculiarity – a gaijin that wore only a swim trunk, a rarity back then, when everyone, especially women, showed very little skin. Sensei was accompanying the gaijin and the narrator was attracted (not romantically) to Sensei for a reason he couldn’t understand himself for a long time.

The beach only appears in the first few pages, but it made an indelible impression on me. Soseki’s simple and evocative writing and the fact that I was there made a clear picture of the beach from the narrator’s perspective. Not only that, Kokoro was written in 1914, and after an hundred years, it is still there, generally the same, today – full of beachgoers who is there to enjoy the sea and the sun.

The beach is called Yuigahama (由比ヶ浜), and there is a small station of the same name, 2 short stops from the Kamakura terminus on the old Enoden train line that goes to Enoshima, a popular spot for couples. Right next to Yuigahama is the Hase neighborhood, where the old temple with a wooden statue of Kannon has a beautiful view of the city. 1420401.jpg

(Enoden train and Enoshima in the background)

Yuigahama is a fairly long swath of beach on the Sagami Bay, with some bathhouses and restaurants dotting the beachfront. Sunbathers and surfers crowd the beach in the summer. I’ve been there a few times, but Kokoro has piqued my interest to go there again and enjoy the beach with lassitude like the protagonist did, while ruminating on the long history of the area, and perhaps happen upon a ‘Sensei.’


(Yuigahama Beach)

Jane Jacobs, Cities and the Wealth of Nations, and Shinohata

Economists have called the modern human homo economicus, largely due to our ability to rationalize and make complex decisions about the past and the future (although Trump makes a strong case against that). We move out when there are no jobs. Relationships last longer when you have enough money. You eat and clothe according to how much you have and what’s available in the market. In other words, “It’s the economy, stupid.”

As we all know when we grow up, whether we like it or not, our lives are dictated by the economy of the world, but Jane Jacobs in her book Cities and the Wealth of Nations, makes a strong case that it is the cities that exerts a greater influence on us rather than the nation’s economy. Cities are the loci of natural economic activity, and countries are a little more than political, geographical, and cultural barriers, often created artificially.

However, she says there are developed cities and dependent cities. She divides the cities by calling them import-replacing cities and backward cities.

Backward cities sounds like they’re cities in the Neolithic time, but really, what Jane Jacobs meant by that is that they simply aren’t import-replacing.

What is an import-replacing city?

Import-replacing, like the name says, replaces what they’ve imported from other places and replaces them with their own products, using their own regions for material or labor. In other words, the city creates jobs and markets in their own regions.

Jane Jacobs brings up an ample of a coffin in rural part of Georgia. Rather than using local wood and labor to create coffins or chairs, a town near Atlanta uses coffins produced in and bought from New England. The South stays ‘backward’ while New England keep flourishing.

She says that any import-replacing city has five crucial elements:

  • markets
  • jobs
  • transplants
  • technology
  • capital

As an example, she brought up Tokyo and a small hamlet in the great Kanto plain, of where Tokyo lies on the southern end. The small hamlet, Shinohata, only 3 generations or so ago, was a 49-household village that lived off a little more than harvesting silk cocoons and growing rice. But as Tokyo prospered after WWII, Shinohata’s (name fictitious to protect the people’s identity) economics and demographics changed completely, becoming a feeder into Tokyo’s needs and becoming dependent on the metropolis.

Tokyo’s market demanded diversification, and Shinohata responded. They began growing vegetables and raising livestock, while increasing rice yield. Silk production declined to make room for the other profitable goods. Tokyo’s demand gave rise to a new kind of industry in Shinohata: oak mushrooms, something that had never been seen before. Hamlets near Tokyo such as Shinohata’s products like oak mushroom replaced other imports from other countries.

Tokyo’s jobs pulled the young people away from Shinohata, and indeed there were less people living there and the demographics became older, yet they had to produce more with less people. It was solved by technology. Tokyo produced labor-saving technology such as rice-planting tractors, making farming higher yields possible even with less people. These technology was financed by the wages from the offsprings who took jobs in Tokyo.

Eventually, Tokyo’s factories transplanted from Tokyo into their suburbans to save money. Shinohata saw new factories moving into their own hamlet, and they used the funds from the land sale to improve their own community. By this, their livelihoods became increasingly intricated with Tokyo’s economy.

Tokyo’s capital also brought changes to Shinohata – they asked for funds for roads, bridges, schools, etc. There was a river near Shinohata that broke through the dikes, flooding the ricefields with gravel, which take years to repair. When the dike broke through disastrously by a typhoon in 1959, a recovery grant was given to repair the ricefields quickly and build a strong concrete dike to curtail the river for once and all. It would have never happened there was a city like Tokyo and Shinohata was not connected to it economically.

So Tokyo, through the five elements of a import-replacing city, has influenced hamlets in its own region like Shinohata. Tokyo went through the process of obtaining all five elements itself, and the same elements spread to its own region, feeding the demands of the metropolis, creating a city region.

However, Jane Jacobs continues, the cities cannot thrive forever. All of them, as evidenced by history, will become stagnant, decline and deteriorate. She brings up three transactions of decline that chips away at the city’s economic power:

  • prolonged and unremitting military production
  • prolonged and unremitting subsides to poor regions
  • heavy promotion of trade between advanced and backward economics

Indeed, history has shown empires like Rome and the Ottoman, investing so much in their military for the sake of “stability” and control, eventually become inert because the drain of military expenditure, which essentially produces nothing, becomes too great. I suspect the US has been trying to circumvent this by selling guns to their own people, as well as overseas. Economics become dependent on military expenditure. Abe is trying to expand Japan’s military power by changing its constitution, but I wonder about the economic impact if he successes. Jacobs says that military expansion creates a boom at first, but it becomes a transaction of decline in the long run.

The wealth of cities become politically and socially untenable if they keep it for themselves, so they must distribute the wealth by subsides. Jane Jacobs says they have to do it, there is no other way. However, she continues, “subsides, precisely because they are transactions of decline, are economic time bombs.” The subsides do not generate innovation or produce wealth. When they cannot be kept any longer or inflation renders them meaningless, the society will “become distraught socially and politically.” We see it everywhere with retirement investments in the US and Europe.

Then there is trade between advanced and backward economics: encouraging growth by making bad trades on credit (like making a payment on a credit card by another credit). The transactions eventually get decreasing returns, and they become a drain on the advanced economics. But they have to do it to keep their economy running, for the sake of growth. The US and Japan’s business often invests capital for ‘growth’ in different parts around the globe, often in the backwards parts. Jacobs would say they are participating in a transaction of decline. Another is stimulus packages/bailouts. Bailouts are essentially government subsides for a decaying economy.

Jane Jacobs wrote the book Cities and the Wealth of Nations in 1984, before the advent of widespread use of Internet, but I believe her essential point still resonate: local is best. City regions are efficient, but going beyond that becomes wasteful and will bring decay. Local activity benefits the local community the best. Wealth means the ability to generate innovation, not necessarily the assets themselves. I believe we should encourage growth of import-replacing cities, basically focus on local economics.

I do not know of any critique against Jane Jacobs, and it seems like people have not given her a serious look in regard to economics, but reading the book has given me new lens on how to look at cities’ and rural areas’ economic activity and how they interact with each other.

Hideyo Noguchi: The Man on the 1000-yen Note

Kokorozashi o ezareba futatabi konochi o fumazu

I will not step on this land again until I have achieved my goal.

A very few people’s life is like a story. A beginning, a middle, and an ending, all of them processing rationally, pushed by a singular force. Most of our lives are not like that: it happens seemingly randomly, because life is random. We grow up, then we don’t know what we will do, we get a job or enter a college depending which place will accept us, perhaps depending on our whims of that moment. Mexico’s Emiliano Zapata’s life feels like a story: he was born poor in rural Mexico, joined the rebellion against the autocrat Porfirio Diaz who monopolized the agriculture and exploited the poor, eventually rising to the leader of the Liberation Army, with the goal of returning the land to the poor, only to be killed in an ambush. His life seemed like a destiny within a chaotic period of Mexico, and people sang hymns of him, and he was the inspiration of the Zapatista movement many years later.

Noguchi, too, seemed to have a destiny. Like Zapatista, he had a burning passion against something he saw as an injustice, and still like the Mexican, he was eventually consumed by the fight.

(Hideyo Noguchi)

In 1876, Hideyo Noguchi was born as Seisaku in a humble home to poor peasants by the Inawashiro Lake in Fukushima (the same state as the nuclear spill in 2011). When he was one year old, he crawled and fell into an irori, a Japanese fireplace used for cooking pots. His left hand was disfigured, with the fingers welded together by the heat, losing most of its mobility and functionality. It would become the catalyst of the driving force throughout his life.

He was picked on by his peers for his disfigurement, getting a nickname “Tembou”: “One-hand.” He was lonely for most of his childhood, turning to his studies in school and reading voraciously. His mother was a powerful encouragement, saying “If you can’t use your left hand, you have your right hand. Use your right hand. Use your head. Go above the bullies.”

When Seisaku was a teenager, shortly after entering school, he received surgery from a doctor, Kanae Watanabe, which recovered some of the movement and freed his fingers up. He was overcome by emotion and gratitude to this doctor and his medical feat that he swore to become a doctor to help those in need like he himself was. Diving into his studies in earnest, he scored top marks in many of the classes in his school, passing medical examinations and earning the favor and support of professors.

(Seisaku/Hideyo on the left, with a friend. Notice the wrapped left hand)

Seisaku read a novel with a lazy protagonist with the same name, so he changed his name to Hideyo because he swore not be like the dissolute character.

Before departing his home to Tokyo, he carved a promise on a wooden pillar in his home, which still remains today:

I will not step on this land again until I have achieved my goal.

Hideyo went to Tokyo to study medicine, where he excelled. He passed the medicine qualification exam, a difficult exam which only 3 out of 80 passed. Perhaps because he could not find a job in Japan because of his hand, he decided to move to the United States to further his skills, getting a job as a research assistant at the Rockefeller Institute of Medical Research in 1900. He catapulted up the ladder after success in research in poisonous snakes. He worked so tirelessly, that others remarked to each other, “When does the Japanese sleep?” He would stay up all night poring over his microscope, writing down meticulous notes.

He won fame when he discovered that a bacterium was the cause of a form of syphilis, which hereto was believed to be caused by a virus.

Showered in honors, he finally returned to Japan in 1915 to visit his aging mother. Her mother had pleaded him to come back just once so she could see him. Seemingly, Noguchi had felt he had achieved his goal so he stepped on his home again and reunited with his mother, who he had not seen in 15 years. It would be the last time he stepped foot on Japan.

(Noguchi and his mother, Shika, during his only visit back home as an adult, 1915)

He returned to work at the Rockefeller Institute, married an American woman, he kept working, traveling extensively around the globe, attempting to cure yellow fever in Central America and South America. He earned some success and plaudits from the South American countries.

Obstinate in his mission to alleviate maladies in the world through medicine, he returned to work and forged ahead to Africa in 1928. In Gold Coast (Ghana), while researching its strain of yellow fever, he was infected with yellow fever just as he was preparing to return to the United States to finalize his research. His last words were “I don’t understand.”

Such was the story that impressed the Japanese so. Today his face graces the 1,000 yen banknote, and his story is taught to schoolchildren as an example of hard work and perseverance despite adversary.


I went to his birth house and museum in Inawashiro, Fukushima, and I was admittedly impressed with his determination: the museum did a great job delineating his childhood and career achievements. However, it did not have any space reserved for criticism, something I noticed only later. Now the museum seemed more like a hagiography.

Noguchi supposedly inoculated orphaned children with syphilis to test their effect, something that would never fly in today’s medicine world. Moreover, he were not so rigorous in his research, often working in isolation, shunning any scrutiny from his colleagues.

Still, his life was impressive and a lesson in hard work. His museum in Inawashiro, Fukushima is highly recommended for those who want to learn about his life, despite it being slightly hagiographical. Like Emiliano Zapata, Noguchi’s life was a rare kind – he began by suffering, his life was a passionate quest in saving others from suffering, eventually being consumed by it. It does seem like a recipe of a hero.

aidu56l.jpg(Birth home of Hideyo Noguchi, in Inawashiro, Fukushima Prefecture)

Issa is there

Only recently I happened upon this haiku by a famous haikaishi (haiku poet), Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828):


Yasegaeru makerna Issa kore ni ari

Frail frog
Do not give up
Issa is there
(my translation)

Part of the reason why I liked this haiku is the linguistic play in the end. The final part is deceptively simple: it contains three of the commonest words, plus Issa’s own name before that. The phrase merely says, There-(particle)-is, which probably cannot be translated satisfactorily (sign languages could possibly do this as well, though). But this simple phrase, kore ni ari, infuses spirituality and meaning into the whole haiku. It tells a lot about the writer, Issa.


Issa Kobayashi lost his mother at the age of 3, and then he was cared of by his grandmother, as his father re-married and the stepmother and the stepsiblings did not like him, so he felt cast off and isolated. He often wandered in the fields in solitude. He eventually moved to Edo and learned the art of haiku at 25. Supposedly, he was so ugly, getting white hair by the time he turned 30, that women ridiculed him for his looks. Nevertheless, he lived on, dove into deep debt, finally marrying at the age of 50, and got married two more times, while outliving all but one of his children and wives. He wrote prodigiously – he composed over 20,000 haiku in his lifetime, a magnitude greater than the more famous Matsuo Basho, who wrote less than one thousand. After marrying three times and losing four of his five children, and shortly after losing his house due to fire, Issa passed away at 65.

Issa is said to have had an inferiority complex throughout his life, and he sympathized with small creatures such as sparrows, frogs, and ants, which frequently popped up in his verses. One can imagine Issa observing a weak frog combating a bigger frog over a female during mating season, and Issa cheering on the weak, because he saw himself there.

Common errors learning ASL

I taught ASL for three years here in Tokyo, and I’ve seen some interesting errors pop up among Japanese students learning ASL, that would probably never come up among hearing students in the US. But when you think about them, they make perfect sense.

A common error is mouthing a Japanese word while signing an ASL sign. For example, mouthing ‘aru’ while signing out ‘have.’ “Aru” is indeed the closest word to “have,” but mouthing it would possibly render the whole sign or even the whole message incomprehensible to a native signer of ASL. Seeing that reinforced to me the dictum that a sign is not limited to the hands, but the whole body. It should be the body signing, not the hands signing. The subtle movement of the head, the mouth shape, the shoulders’s tilt. Even Deaf people, native signers, often have the misconception that the sign is confined to the hands, and it showed in my students, some of them Deaf themselves.

Mouthing Japanese words betrays that they are thinking in Japanese, not ASL. Even if you mouth it in English, it is no better – you should not be thinking in English anyway, although many of us still do.

Another one is the handshape. In JSL there is a handshape that does not exist in ASL: the open-hand, ring finger out. The closest handshape in ASL is “seven,” but that uses the thumb. In Japan, that sing is used for the word “medicine” (kusuri). I teach them the ASL sign for “medicine” (using the middle finger) and they invariably use the wrong finger – I do not blame them, the signs are so similar. However, they sometimes use the ring finger instead of the middle finger in another signs, like “SICK-OF.”

Word order is particularly interesting, because in Japanese the basic sentence structure is S-O-V, and ASL often follows that structure as well, expect you usually repeat the S, like “YOU-HOMEWORK-FINISH-YOU?” A student with a meticulous bent would sign out “I-STORE-GO,” which isn’t so bad, expect that he mouthed it out in perfect Japanese: “WATASHI-OMISE-ITTA” which gave me a linguistic aneurysm. I’ve never heard a word in my life, but it must be like listening to two different languages at the same time, while understanding both. He’s halfway there, yet strangely so far away.

I suppose what I want to say to prospective students: be aware of your linguistic preconceptions and tendencies, what language you are thinking of, and try to break out from it. But that is difficult for those with weak CL or gesture skills. And the more signing models you learn from, the better.

Withering away of the exotic

This will be my first blog. I don’t have a clear vision of what I want out of this blog, so I’m just going to wing it, writing down my thoughts and see what comes out of it. I have only one goal: an entry everyday.

I live in Japan, been here for over 4 years. I’ve always wanted to live in Japan, so I am really fortunate to have the opportunity to live here. I’ve traveled up and down, west and east, going to notable places every chance I can get, while trying to improve my understanding and knowledge of the history of Japan, Japanese culture and language. I’m still discovering new and interesting places, and I’m looking forward to more. So naturally, I expect some of my future entries to be about my travels in Japan, both from the past and those yet to come.

The word exotic is a charged term – it means you are fetishizing a culture or a place, often a exploited one, to be something that it is really not. You are experiencing something as a tourist, and then you come back to your privileged position once you’re satisfied. So I am almost loath to say it, but I would be lying if I said ‘exotic’ wasn’t the word that fit my first few months here in Japan. The sights were new, they were brilliant, the kanji so cool, the atmosphere in the cheap eateries where tired salarymen slumps over their rice bowls so foreign… That exoticness that colored my experiences seem to have faded away gradually over the years I’ve been here. Not that I complain of it, quite the contrary – I believe I am seeing Japan from a more even place. The kanji rolling across the message ticker in the subway cars no longer fascinate me; I see them what they were meant to be – merely characters conveying a message. The ‘exotic’ patina over the kanji has withered away.

More to come.