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Friday, June 15, 2001



Teamwork stressed in school sports event

One of the major events of the Japanese school year is the undokai, a full day of athletics. Although undokai is usually rendered into English as "field day" or "sports day," the event is uniquely Japanese.

Unlike the field days I experienced in the United States, undokai are centered on working together as a group to accomplish things an individual can't do alone. Everything is done in teams. There is no recognition for individual performance. In fact, there aren't any events where individuals are pitted against each other.

The history of undokai is said to date back to 1874, when an Englishman teaching at a naval academy near Hiroshima organized a school-wide sports competition. Other schools, including the University of Tokyo, picked up the idea. Around the turn of the century, when physical education became a required subject at elementary schools, undokai were adopted throughout Japan.

"I've never heard of a school, public or private, that doesn't have an undokai," one friend remarked to me. Even Japanese schools overseas hold them, because participating in an undokai is considered an important part of being Japanese. A standard format developed over the years, and undokai are remarkably similar from place to place.

Undokai are often held in October, but our school's was scheduled for the first Sunday in June. Since this was just before the start of the rainy season, there was much fretting about whether the event would be postponed due to rain. Mothers, in particular, worry about last-minute postponement. Many get up at 5 or 6 o'clock in the morning to prepare elaborate bento picnic lunches for the family, and they are understandably loath to do it twice.

But the day opened sunny and warm. We were in the schoolyard ahead of the 9 a.m. start time to stake a claim in the limited shade around the track. This is an event that draws crowds. Almost all Japanese adults enjoy reliving happy childhood memories by watching their children and grandchildren participate in the undokai.

The program showed 15 events before lunch and eight more after. I feared we'd be there all day, but everything was superbly organized with no waiting time between events. The kids and teachers had practiced hard for a month, and everyone knew what to do.

The children were divided into two teams. They wore their gym uniform of a white shirt, navy blue shorts and a reversible red-to-white beanie called a kohakuboshi or akashiroboshi. Students set their hats to show if they were on the red or white team.

Every child participated in at least three events. For each grade, there was a foot race, a group dance and a competitive team event such as tug of war. Disabled students are included, and participate to the best of their ability.

In addition, the eight fastest runners in each grade were selected for the relays. These races (separate ones for lower and upper grades and for boys and girls) are among the most exciting events of the day. Our children were both chosen for the relay teams, for which we received much congratulation.

By design, many of the events are a little goofy, which makes them fun to do and watch. In the one event for parents, we threw beanbags into a basket on the back of a PTA official, who wore a hard hat to protect against stray volleys and rotated to make our task harder.

Points are awarded for most events. Even the losing team gets points, but the winners get more. A group of adults under a tent were the official scorekeepers, signaling the results to students on a second-floor balcony who posted the score for all to see.

The most interesting events come after lunch. Demonstrating how much can be accomplished when everyone works together, the older children did impressive group formations, including pyramids and lines that undulated up and down the schoolyard.

A much-awaited event is the kibasen (cavalry battle). At our school, only the fifth- and sixth-graders participate, divided into teams of four. Three students form a "horse," interlocking their hands to provide stirrups for a fourth who climbs up on top. Joined like this, the horse and rider move awkwardly to battle other groups.

Older Japanese will tell you that in their day, when kids were tougher (and parents less likely to fuss about injuries), the goal of the game was to knock down the other groups. These days, most schools have modified the game to make it safer. At our school, each rider wore a headband with a paper feather. The goal was to snatch this feather. Several adults in the audience commented that this dainty version is a snore compared to the raucous battles of their youth.

Indeed, the undokai is changing. Many schools have reduced or eliminated competition to spare the feelings of less athletic children. Some parents applaud this; others say it's ridiculous to shelter children and makes for a dull event.

Some schools have simplified the undokai so they don't have to devote so much class time to practice -- or because today's children (who are more sedentary than previous generations) are not strong enough for physically demanding games.

Could the undokai be on its way out? Not likely. Although not required by law or the education ministry, the undokai is a tradition. Educators say parents would object if schools tried to eliminate an event children and parents enjoy so much. So schools treat the undokai as an important part of physical education. Not to mention community relations.

Who won? The red team, by just a few points. In the closing ceremony, the reds took possession of a big cup that is displayed in the school lobby. And, in the Japanese tradition of zannensho ("Too bad! You tried so hard!" prizes), the white team got a big plaque that is displayed right next to the winner's cup.

Alice Gordenker is a Tokyo-based writer and the mother of two American children attending Japanese public elementary school.

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