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Friday, Oct. 5, 2001


It's just like learning to ride a unicycle . . .

Don't forget, physical education is for inspiring kids to keep fit and get along

How did I ever get it into my head that my kids should learn to ride a unicycle while we're in Japan?

It happened at a hogoshakai (parents' meeting) last year. My son's third-grade teacher announced she wanted every child in the class to master the unicycle. I was thrilled! Almost nobody in America knows how to ride a unicycle, and they certainly don't teach it in school! Wouldn't the folks back home be amazed to see my kids speeding around on one wheel?

My son's teacher could set such a goal, because in Japan the classroom teacher handles physical education. Elementary schools don't have specialized gym teachers. And while the education ministry issues eight pages of guidelines for taiiku (physical education), teachers have considerable leeway with what they choose to teach.

This means that schools in Hokkaido usually teach skiing or skating, instead of swimming. And some schools choose to put a lot of effort into certain sports or activities. From television, I learned about a school in Chiba where every student can do complicated dance routines on a unicycle. Very cool!

As it turned out, my son's teacher, who was new to the school, was fighting a losing battle. Our school doesn't have enough cycles for a full class, so the kids had to wait for a turn to practice. The only place to ride is on the school roof, which was scary for some students. And our school has no bars to hold on to for balance.

My son's teacher made a valiant effort, but she finally resigned herself to the fact that not everyone was going to succeed. All the girls in the class learned to ride, but only two of the boys ever got the hang of it.

I'm sorry to say my son was not one of them. I offered to buy him a unicycle so he could practice at home, but he turned the offer down. He had no desire to ride a unicycle. "If you're so keen on this, why don't you learn?" he demanded. Actually, I tried. I was hopeless. So I had to set aside that dream for both of us.

Unicycle riding was just one of many things about taiiku that was new to us. For my older son, the tough part was having to change into taiikugi (gym clothes). Most American schools did away with gym uniforms long ago, probably because changing took up too much school time. At schools in the United States, kids go to P.E. in their regular clothes. And return to their desks sweaty and stinky.

But in Japanese elementary schools, students change into gym clothes and they do it right in the classroom. Boys and girls together. My son was scandalized about this. He didn't want anyone, particularly girls, to see him in his underpants. Eventually he figured out he could keep himself covered if he wore a longish T- shirt on days when there was taiiku.

This year, our school decided that boys and girls should wear the same taiikugi: navy blue shorts and a white T-shirt. Ostensibly, the new policy was designed to make it easier for families with children of both sexes to hand down gym clothes from brother to sister, or from sister to brother. But the change also did away with those awful buruma that the girls had to wear. Buruma (from the English word "bloomers") are tight, skimpy shorts that barely cover girls' panties. They don't look too bad on skinny first-graders, but on fifth- and sixth-grade girls who are starting to mature, bloomers are way too revealing.

My kids get more physical education here in Japan. In America, they had gym twice a week for 40 minutes. Here, they have taiiku three times a week for 45 minutes. Having more opportunity to blow off steam through physical activity seems to make them happier in school.

The main goal of physical education in Japan is to encourage children's interest in sports and physical activity so that they'll grow up to be healthy, active adults. But I've also noticed an emphasis on sports as a means of developing positive relationships with others. This is not just social custom. It's clearly laid out in the Education Ministry's guidelines.

For example, the guidelines for first- and second-graders state that students should learn to take turns and follow simple rules so everyone can enjoy playing games together. By third and fourth grade, students are learning how to set goals collectively for their team. "What sort of goals?" I asked a teacher.

"It might be as simple as deciding that they want to win this time," she told me. "Or it could be more sophisticated, like agreeing to pass the ball more often to a less aggressive classmate so that child has a chance to score at least one point."

In fifth and sixth grade, the guidelines state, students should learn how to organize themselves for practices and games by sharing responsibilities, and should also learn to show good sportsmanship whether they win or lose.

There is a lot of variety in Japanese taiiku classes, in part to give children a chance to find out what physical activities they enjoy. Much of what is taught was new to my kids, including a simplified version of basketball called potoboru. What they've really taken a shine to are the tobibako (vaulting boxes), which aren't common pieces of equipment in American elementary schools. My older son can vault over a stack of eight tobibako that stand 100 cm high, or about his chest height.

I should be proud of that, right? So what if he can't ride a unicycle!

Oct. 8 is Taiiku no Hi (Sports Day), the national holiday that commemorates the opening of the Tokyo Olympics in 1964. Many schools schedule their undokai for this weekend. These daylong sports events are a great opportunity to see how Japanese schools teach kids to work together in physical activities (see June 15 column).

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