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.