Sports days are held in spring or fall. Children look forward to the day eagerly.
Does your school host a sporting event for you every year? Japanese schools hold an annual sports day called undokai. Many schools split the students into several groups to compete for points in team sports and games. Children start practicing for sports day as early as one month before the day.
The Ever-Popular Relay Race
The first sports day in Japan is said to be a sports meet held by French people who worked in the city of Yokohama. Ever since then, influenced by various countries and adding Japan's traditions and local flavor, the event has come to have a style unique to Japan.
The relay race is the most absorbing activity of the day for both the relay runners and the cheering children.
For generations, from the kids who grew up to be moms and dads up until today's kids, the relay race has been the headline event at sports day. For the race, each class chooses several fast sprinters to be the relay runners, who will take turns running and passing a baton from the start line to finish line. The relay race often takes place at the end of sports day, so it is not unusual for the result of the race to bring a last-second victory in the team competition. As the race approaches, the students chosen as the relay runners are tense. Then, as they race, they push themselves to do their best. The effort shows a sense of responsibility to their teams. Loud cheering fills the air as every student yells encouragement to their teammates at the top of their lungs. After performing well, the runners feel like they have achieved greatness, while the other students give longing looks of respect.
Competitive Games Where Teammates Work Together
On sports day in Japan, students play a number of games with interesting rules that require teammates to collaborate.
An example is the Giant Ball Roll. In this game, everybody on a team stands in a circle and passes a giant ball rolling across their hands above their heads. The key to the game is to work altogether as one. If the ball falls to the ground, the team has to bring it back to where it fell and pick it up again to resume rolling the ball. Students in every grade play the Giant Ball Roll, and they have few chances to practice together as a team. So in the real game, they have a hard time getting the giant ball to the finish line because the ball rolls in unexpected directions. The air is filled with the laughter and cheers of the spectators watching the children.
The Beanbag Toss is another game that uses "balls" (in the form of beanbags). In this game, all the members of a team are throwing small beanbags at a basket at the same time. The basket is at about twice the height of the young students. The winning team is the one with the most beanbags in the basket. Sometimes, kids get frustrated when they toss beanbags that do not reach the basket, even though they threw the bags as far as they could. But in the end, after the bags inside the baskets are counted and the final count is announced, those same kids on the winning team may exclaim, "We did it!"
Everybody on a team acts together as one set of hands to roll a giant ball in the Giant Ball Roll (left). The Beanbag Toss (right) features children from the lower grades.
In a Japanese-style scavenger hunt, a player may need to hunt for something tricky to find. Here, a hunter (right) is guiding "your friend's mother" (left) to the finish line.
In the Scavenger Hunt, players have to pick out a card, find the item written on the card and bring the item to the finish line. Words like "handkerchief" and "pen" on some cards may be easy-to-get items because the players can borrow them from anyone, but other words like "cat" and "your friend's mother" may be things that are tricky to find. The faces of cheering spectators show not only excitement but also curiosity about what the players are looking for. They might also hear a player shouting the name of an object to get help from teammates because he or she cannot find the object.
Non-Competitive Group Performances Also Worth Watching
The features of sports day in Japan also include group performances by competing teams. The teams may be jointly performing a local dance, one that is performed every year. Or the performance may be a creative dance based on a popular song that year. You might even see a large-scale performance by nearly 100 children dancing in time to seven or eight minutes of music.
A group performance involves a lot of complex movements. An example is an arrangement that has performers change positions in the middle of the performance, with a different dance designed for each small group. But no matter how complex it is, many children find it fun to feel their body movements gradually synchronize with others as they practice. When the actual performance ends, their faces shine with a look that says, "We've just done something difficult." Parents who come to sports day to root for their children also look forward to these performances. They have watched their children practice, and feel moved by the outcome of the real performance. It gives them confidence about the children's growth.
After planning out their appearance in the group performance, children in different groups are wearing clothes of different colors (left), and other children are holding props (right).
Sports day brings students from all classes closer together. It is a day when children may make new friends with children they have never talked to before. It brings about a close-knit school, which makes school life more enjoyable. So by the time that the children become adults, they will treasure the lessons they learned from sports days, which become lasting, precious memories of childhood.