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October is the time for sports in Japan

By: David Knickerbocker

Date Posted: 2002-10-12

Every year, from late September until the middle of October, most schools throughout Japan host undou-kai, otherwise known as "sports day." On this occasion, students all over Japan, from kindergarten through high school are given a chance to test their abilities and compete against each other in a variety of athletic events. Similar to America's "field days", where students win awards by running the fastest, jumping the highest, and throwing the farthest, Japan's undou-kai differ in a few aspects. First, undou-kai is a time where the whole family comes together to cheer for their children, grandchildren, friends, and relatives. This is especially true at elementary school meets where large numbers of families flood the school grounds to cheer on the students. At both undou-kai I attended in Naha City, the whole school athletic grounds was filled completely with parents, students, food vendors, TV cameramen, and other spectators. Second, students usually participate in other non-competitive events such as folk or traditional dancing. At most of Okinawan elementary schools, you can see the children perform fantastic eisa dances while other students pound on taiko drums.

There are two kinds of events held during Japan's sports day events: Individual, and group. Individual events include running races and other athletic activities where children from the same grade level compete against each other. Group events include class tug-of-wars, a mock cavalry battle called kibasen, and relay races. I have never seen anything like kibasen before. This event is usually done by fifth graders and includes multiple teams of four students. Three students hoist one student up on their shoulders and race towards the opposing teams. When the two teams clash, the two opposing enemies on top each try to steal the others hat. However, things usually get a little more out of hand than just hat swapping. During a few "battles", the top students lost balance and fell from their positions to the dust below. Taikou drums beat madly in the background giving this event and even more intense atmosphere.

Though children are the main participants of undou-kai, they aren't the only athletes in the arena. Teams made up of dozens of PTA members and teachers also race against each other in a PTA relay race. A few of the parents involved say they were nervous. Obviously, they wanted to make their children proud, just as their children wanted to make their parents proud.

Sports are very popular in Japan during the autumn months because the weather is mild, but there is a specific reason most undou-kai take place near the middle of October. Ever since 1966, the second Monday of October has been a Japanese national holiday called Taiiku-no-hi, or Health Sports Day. It is a holiday with the purpose of nurturing physical and mental health as well as familiarizing students with sports. The first Taiiku-no-hi took place to commemorate the opening of the Tokyo Olympics on October 10, 1966.

If you've never attended a sports day, you'll surely enjoy it. Parking will likely be very difficult as hundreds of parents and relatives are sure to flood every school on this particular day, but you can usually find somewhere within walking distance to leave your car. Be sure to pack a camera and sun screen, but don't worry too much about food and drinks. Pack a sandwich or two, but vendors are usually present selling kakigori (flavored shaved ice), soft drinks, beer, and other goodies. I personally enjoyed my first introduction to sports day this year and I recommend checking out your nearest undou-kai if you have a chance.

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