Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Undokai: The National Fountain of Youth-Sports

うんどうかい=UNDOKAI=Sports Festival:
Not your usual podium shot of the winner's circle
うんどうかい=UNDOKAI=Sports Festival:
More than a national mini Olympics
Field Day!

Specifics escape me, but I vaguely recall Fishinger Elementary School holding a Field Day Event, staging the two 6th grade classes against each other in some form of a track meet competition on a grassy field (hence the name) behind the school.  I was mid-race - perhaps a loosely measured 100 yard dash, when I encountered my first and only bee sting to date.  I don't remember what place I finished, or if our class won, but I can almost still feel that nasty bite.  Despite a general liking for school and sporting events, and a not-so-bad taste for "OFF" bug spray, without the yellow jacket to my right thigh, I might not have had any prize recall of that day at all.

Elemetary School Field Day in Japan (Contrast):
No record of my elementary school race--
it wasn't exactly an event that had a stadium audience,
or even one devoted parent with a Polaroid.

Preschool Field Day in Japan: How can you forget an event with such cute 50 meter dash training? 

In Japan, "Sports Festivals," (運動会, undokai) are unforgettable milestones, and not soley because they are red marked on the calendar allowing the entire country to revolve around the fan-fare. The undokai is a one-day event, an all day event. Meticulous preparation "false starts" begin an average of a half year in advance, while the recovery period "cool down" requires an average of double that time (I give myself another fortnight until I'm back up to average speed this round). 

The typical program kicks off with a 35 minute opening ceremony, followed by 20-some events administered on precision time protocol, and a 20 minute closing ceremony (scoring system also noted on right).

Cliff Notes: History in Brief

The annual event dates back to the Meiji Era (1868), and the ritual of the undokai propelled into a national requirement in more recent history, during the Showa Era (1966).  Since the event had been in practice since the 19th century anyway, the government declared "Health and Sports Day" (体育の日, Tai Iku no Hi) to be a holiday in Japan for the first time on October 10, 1966, in commemoration of the pomp and circumstance surrounding its formal version: the Opening Ceremony of the 1964 Summer Olympics.  
Families take refuge in their UVA protected
tents (also on the checklist) from the often
sweltering Sports Day heat, which serves as the
locale for the 45 minute  lunch break.

That's right, Japan hosted the summer Olympics in October, during the month which most of the globe dubs fallThe coaching strategy on that calendar move is said to be three-fold: to avoid 1) the wetter than the synchronized swimming pool rainy season from June to mid-July, 2) the hotter and steamier than the torch temperatures of late July and August, 3) and the riskier than the platform diving typhoon season in September.   

Happy Mondays Never Get Me Down

Fast forward to the Heisei Era (2000), and Health and Sports Day is no longer held exclusively on 10/10; rather, it's observed on the second Monday of October, thanks to the government's adoption of the "Happy Monday" policy* in favor of a man-made three day weekend. *I approve of the borrowed use of the English word "Happy" in this case, as well as the importation of the made-in-the-USA "uniform holiday bill" act to create an extended weekend. Kompai (Cheers) to Health and Happiness!

Tai Iku no Hi sets out to "foster an enthusiasm for health and fitness," or, in layman's terms, to foster a cut throat rally in the form of an all out Tug of War (always the apex on the Sports Day program), and in the end, opponents march off the battle ground, sing in harmony, and pose for a memorable group photo. The Summer Olympics is returning to Tokyo in 2020, and trust me this host nation is not rusty in the ceremonial or planning department. Thanks to hundreds of years of sports festivals, these mini Olympic level dress rehearsals have been in full force at every sector of society: from nursery schools to senior centers; to convenience store to Ginza department store staffs; to political parties to entertainment industry party circles; to thumb wrestler hobbists to sumo wrestler stable masters and beyond.  

Red vs White Olympic Competition

I'd judge Japan to be the defending gold medal champions of mass enthusiastic participation, themed ceremonies, and finely tuned agenda execution. The scheduled "Happiness" on the programs has united the country on fields across the landscape for centuries, and in seven short years from now, the world joins in on the 2020 Summer Olympics stage. To illustrate a lane of this undokai track picture in Japan, I'll focus on my experience with the school field days, and you can let your imagination sprint off the blocks from there.  

First, classes don't face off the way our gym teacher Mr. Rohal rallied the Fishinger Bulldogs. Instead, with the flip of a reversible gym hat, the whole school divides evenly at random, with mixed ages, classes, levels and sexes.  The team names even take the Japanese flag split down the middle: Red vs. White.

The Face Off: Red vs. White

Students divide for the all or nothing
Red  vs. White Tug of War.

Varsity Preparation 

Preparation starts an academic year in advance, when school calendars are set and distributed to parents.  Several months in advance rain date details are confirmed.  In our case, East Elementary's Sports Festival was on a Saturday.  If it rained, it would take place Sunday. If it rained on Sunday, the second rain date was scheduled for Tuesday. There would be no school either way on Monday in compensation for an intended weekend school day.  If it rained on Tuesday, rain date #3 was set for Wednesday.  In the event of a Saturday or Sunday meet, students and families were to bring obento, or packed lunch.  If rain date #2 or #3 on Tuesday or Wednesday were enforced, the students would be served the scheduled school lunch, but families and guests would need to bring obento for themselves.  Again, there would be no school Monday no matter what the weather was that week and thus no lunch policy to note.  Are you following this? Well, it doesn't matter because Saturday was sunny anyway.

Olympic Brown Bag Lunch

The above is a snippet from the annual school calendar. The left side indicates that undokai is scheduled on the 28th and maps out potential rain dates for the week that follows.  You are not expected to understand any of the mess I cut and cropped and lined up here, just feel the pain in the form of still fresh tug of war rope burns as a type.

Not exactly your peanut butter and jelly sandwich in a brown bag:  The obento (stacked lunch box) for undokai is a home made creation with decorative, sports-themed love. Note the characters on the rice, elementary school kid in center, and bunnies on either side represent the Red and White team rivalries, crafted from fish paste.

がんばれ!(Good luck) written on sausages out of cut seaweed, blue ribbon winning hopefuls in the fruit dessert tray, and various blends of flavored rice in the form of cute little athletes from the mother's love preparation end. Cups are filled to the brim with regulation barely tea, a caffeine-free favorite.

Collection from Toe to Head

Now that were clear on the date and lunch policy, the notices including calls for round-ups of random goods begins from head to toe.  We'll start with toe.  Literally, the first thing we need to do is follow fixed measurements to make fitted bootees for the students' classroom chairs.  On the day of the festival, they take their chairs outside to the dirt-ground assigned spot under the "just for that day" awninged tents.  When they bring their chairs back in the school at the end of the closing ceremony, they would otherwise track small stones and sand into the sacred no-outdoor-footwear hallways of the building.  Twenty years in the culture and I'm quite accustomed to the slipper rules, but for inanimate objects, this was a first for me.

I took the sketch and instruction handout to the fabric store and my daughter selected a pattern. She was free to choose color and design, as long as there were no logos, TV anime, or famous manga character involved, as those potential invaders distract from the educational process. The bootees need to be submitted a month in advance so that the students can practice their "agenda time trial" dress rehearsals during gym class.

Fresh from the tailor, "Reform." Material: $3.95,
Handiwork: $11.95. Years saved in sanity for not
attempting myself?  Countless.
My daughter was in first grade at the time and thus I encouraged her to look into the future of her likes and dislikes in order to use the same pair, one day a year, through 6th grade.  I imagined over 99% of the PTA population stitched their own child's chair bootees.  After all, or above all, there is a direct cultural link between the amount of love you have for your child to the effort it takes to hand make everything. We drove our fabric and instructions straight to a tailor, assured we could pick up the professionally finished product in 7 days or less.

Foul Called by (Seam) Line Judge

Mid-week I received a phone call from the seamstress, asking me to confirm the measurements.  She had an order from the parent of a 4th grade boy at the same school and his numbers differed slightly.  After further investigation, I learned that student chair and desk sizes are slightly smaller 1st through 3rd grade therefore the booty measurements grow with their leg sizes from 4th grade on.  Fast forward to present day, as a Mom of a third grader, this marks the last year for our pink bunny bootees.  I didn't bother asking the tailor if I was the only one of the two cheating mothers she second guessed (perhaps assuming I misread the details) on the centimetres in the orders placed, which preserves my mental state at least until the next item is rounded up.  Thanks to the leaked intel on said 4th grade mother, perhaps I can adjust my statistical analysis to only 98% of the parents stitched their own.

Classroom chairs line the grounds.  Notice the dirt accumulation on the blue booty on the far left.  That saved the grace of the interior of the school from the impure soils of the outdoors. The desk chair leg protector!

Trash Collection: Not so fast, everything can become school supplies!

First graders cut, sized and donned
colored capes for their dance routine.

Soon after the bootees were toted to school with a 4 week wiggle room window, the call came for paper fans, disposable chopsticks and a multi-colored hula hoop for dance numbers. In addition, they required white rice grains or bright red beads (depending on if you represent the White or the Red team) to fill 1 quarter high of 2 drained, rinsed and de-labeled water bottles for noise makers. If you've ever had the pleasure to attend the happy madness of a professional baseball game in Japan, or even get a glimpse of the highlights on TV, you will understand where that precise, uniform and on-beat cheering blaring from the stands is mastered.

The Red Team in action cheering students on with their
emptied, drained and decorated water bottle noise makers.
The advance collection is less in part of giving the parents time to accumulate supplies (which I suspect would be more of the American way), yet more to get these miscellaneous items to school for the students' hands-on preparation and practice drills. Even the rice grains go to school in a zip-locked bag or tupperware, separate from the empty bottles, so the students can construct their noise makers in science class, experimenting with different amounts and levels of rattle or flash. 

Synchronized Education

Undokai may be a one day event, but considering the integrated curriculum, each subject manages to incorporate the build up, or "training," as a significant part of the students' education. For example, her weekly schedule listed a scattering of sports day prep class activities on a daily basis for at least 2 months preceding its execution.  In addition to the obvious gym class and previously mentioned science class lesson plans, math class dictates that they mock up agendas and time tables, in civics they draft invitations to the city officials, in art they design and construct themed banners, illustrated programs, and cheering paraphernalia, and in calligraphy they take their brushes to the ink wells to scroll massive banners scripting the chosen theme of the year.

Coloring vinyl trash bags, finely chopping them and
fastening them to laundry clips make for art class pom pons.

Coordinated formations at the Kindergarten demonstrate the 101 uses for the modern hula hoop.
Save and wash your take out meal chopsticks
 to build your own flags for jazzercise.
Four to five weeks in advance marks the deadline for applications for parent-participation events. Immediately following the "voluntary"contract of agreement submission, diagramed instructions and applicable rules are distributed within 3 weeks prior to game day, for parents to study and master.  After all, academic preparation of associated regulations are mandatory in order to maximize levels of "happiness" and execution.

On "field day," two events line up in the gullies while one has the main ground, so if you are educated in advance on the how-to, the agenda can go as planned, printed and published.  I don't want to be the first one to set those itineraries off by even a New York minute. In Japan, I'm convinced that scheduling and timed agenda following are Olympic events, and from my judgement, they are defending gold medal champions in both sports.

Waiting in starting block position on deck for the next parent-child
tether ball-like event.  All participants jog on and off
the field for every event-to keep time and maintain fitness.

Parents' (In)voluntary Involvement

Participation from parents is a requirement. It's not written per se, but you do tend to walk around with a euphemistic Horrible Mom/ Deadbeat Dad sign across your forehead if you're not out there in your Richard Simmons "Sweating to the Oldies" gear right along side of the kids. Plus, sign-up sheets are signed, stamped and returned with enough advance warning that the wrath of the failed to-even-intend-to play family might blackball the child from future entry into the right schools and thus advancement into prestigious company of employment.  Okay, it's not that harsh, but you get the idea -- everybody joins in and actually enjoys it.  The latter is not a requirement, but it tends to be the consensus.

Run within the Lines, Sign on the Dotted Line

My involvement in this race was really more
as a traffic guard, otherwise the sandbox
might be the finish line (refer to alternative
result in photo at left).

There's always"one kid" who finds
 her own way to race.
 My field day background doesn't
match the lifetime experience that
my counterparts in Japan have.

親子ゴロン:BigBall Relay rules, objectives,
procedure and diagram

The form at left is dated 9/10,  the bottom portion had the dotted line to clip and submit the sign up by the 9/13 deadline.  Detailed instructions and rules dictated four Big Ball Relay Race teams of 4 members.  The 3rd grade student-parent groups take the east end of the grounds while the 4th grade students and parents start from the west end.  The rules, objectives and instructions are clearly spelled out, numbered and detailed.  If you are more of a visual learner, the diagram illustrates the position of the students and parents, placement of the cones, game ball and goal.

The link below provides a snippet of the highlights of the Big Ball Relay.  You get a taste of the peppy music, the collective understanding of the rules of play for the one time only event, as well as the graceful and timely execution of the race.  Oh, the highlight really is that our team (peach colored headbands) won the relay.  It was a non-scoring event, but the competitive spirit the government set out to foster through the Happy Holiday, was felt by all.

Click here for video: http://youtu.be/WHzSlyOYUFo

Non Regulation Jerseys Permitted

Parents don't have a uniform like the kids for our sports day athletic pursuits, yet we are not without a guiding handout that goes only slightly beyond the international standard of common sense that would simply infer loose fitting clothing and shoes we could move easily in.  I find Thanksgiving dinner pants work well for the 3 legged race since they do get tugged around, and Converse-style tennis shoes tend to better than running shoe soles since they have absolutely no lift, which prevents injury when you are dodging cones, ring obstacles, or other children during mad dashes.

Moms double up on pairs of giant sandals for a shuttle run here.
Although you can't see the footwork, we are smiling happily,
and sporting our uniform colored headbands.
 My Richard Simmons fashion reference was no joke.

The fine print on the left reads, "We are not alone," in English.
The graphic to the right? I'll leave that to your imagination.
The school teachers don't assign themselves a required uniform to sport that day.  However, in the uplifting group spirit that Health and Wellness activities strive to promote, they design, order and model matching collared shirts, showcasing the theme of the year.   In case you were feeling lonely or under appreciated in your quest to meet the supply lists demands and obento preparation expectations, you can be assured by the mass-produced slogan of the year, "We are not alone!"

Civilized Food Fight

Any event involving food will have a strict code in the presentation category.  Items are wrapped and individually packaged so mess on clothing and potential contamination is diverted. In the bread eating race relay, contestants dash across the field, and mid-way, use only their mouths to retrieve a sweet bean paste filled or melon flavored roll, then continue to the run to finish line.  Organized, civilized feeding frenzy at its finest, participants are free to eat the baked delights during the 30-45 minute lunch break scheduled on the program. Snacking and drinking during non regulated periods is poor manners, though there is no point penalty.  

Gentle reminder, "We are not alone" in our break times, so schedule your hunger and thirst needs accordingly. I've introduced "bobbing for apples" to play groups and American culture classes over the years, and the disgust of sharing spit water has always been a barrier.  After participating in such kinds of obstacle courses, I'm thinking if I peel, chop and wrap apple slices and clip them to a poll, I might forge new territory in cross-cultural celebrations.  Just 7 years until the olympics to execute that plan.

Two teachers hold up a limbo-style bamboo bar and load and reload the melon rolls and sweet bean buns in rotation for each heat.  The staff's speed and efficiency is even more impressive than the participants' sprinting abilities.

White-gloved Tug of War

One could think the mass events are militaristic. Besides, Tug of War competitors are issued 軍手 (guntei), which literally translates as, "army hands" (students already have their own in their supply stash, as we were assigned to stitch their names in the thumbs of both weeks ago). The white cloth standard are described in English as "white working gloves," and serve as essential gear for gardening and handiwork in Japan, in addition to being ubiquitous during school events.  The guntei are to be donned again at the end of the event for clean-up and pack-up participation. Post closing ceremony clean up is not required, but you may find yourself bumped to the top of the list of rainy season patrol duties during its next revision if you are caught sneaking home early. On a related note, the same gloves are "coincidentally" distributed for "voluntary" seasonal weed the school grounds events.

If you have to ask for weeding gloves when you "volunteer,"
consider yourself busted for not having
signed up for the Tug of War.
Tug of War: Parent teams and student teams
compete separately. It's not age discrimination - parents'  events are not scored. All events are co-ed.
Checklist Finals

The "to bring" list on the day of the games for the kids is not overwhelming, considering the small cargo loads of random supplies that have been going from home to school for 6 weeks by now.  That said, there is a final checklist with two boxes by each item for the student to tick and the parent to double check. Event day is considered an official school day for the kids, thus they leave the house to meet their assigned walking groups as usual around 7:30 AM.  They have the privilege of wearing the backpack of their choice for the day, not the regular boxy Randoseru backpack designed for carting school textbooks.

The contents: lunch, thermos, and "bonus" beverage - for this day only they are allowed to have up to 500 ml of non carbonated sports drink in their bottles, but never juice or pop.  Usually on school hiking or field trips, they are limited to iced green tea, barely tea, or water. Other pack contents include their pair of indoor shoes in its fitted cloth sack (since those are sent home every Friday and they will go to their classroom before and after the festival for meetings), gym uniform shorts and shirt, including the red/white reversible gym hat. They wear the standard issued yellow hat for the walk to and from school, but the gym hat they wear shows the color that represents which undokai team they are on: Red or White. The hat trick could be considered the loose equivalent of the US "shirts and skins" pick up game of basketball, but much more refined, and not bordering on R rated).

Ariel represents the okay for the day pack.
Under her chair is the permitted for the day sports drink
in orange tote, thermos of ice water,  and
chair leg bootees (I take every chance to point those out).
The gym hat elastic band has been refreshed (tightened) at home and pre-approved by the staff.  Etiquette essentials such as a handkerchief, a towel (not for showers, but in case they need to wipe their brows from sweating to keep time), a plastic bag for toting their dirty and dusty chair leg bootees home, and their renrakucho notebook to record notes and homework assignments at their final meeting in the classroom, and a pencil case rounded out the list of requirements.

Masters of Ceremony

Taiko drum roll: Live shot of the Opening Clap in action
following 35 minutes of opening speeches.
City Mayor and city VIPs cheer along during the pep rally.

Opening and closing ceremonies include: Speech making, marching bands, school songs, national Sports Day and National (Kimigayo) Anthems contribute to the main ingredients in any Japanese event, and I'm not even referencing the obento here. I'm convinced that without the opening and closing claps anchoring an event in Japan, the Happy Monday ships would sink.

School Band gets us feeling "On Top of the World"
during the Opening Ceremony.
Cue the Carpenters

Although making props by hand is part of the education surrounding undokai, I'm not referring to the handy-man carpenter here, rather, the singing sibling duo composed of Karen and Richard.  They have been gracing the opening and closing ceremony of all kinds at least since I landed nearly 20 years ago, and presumably for decades prior.  They really have a song in their repertoire that can weave into any mood or theme, whether it's a field day, a graduation, a wedding or a funeral (they have piped through them all).

School Song (upper left) printed on the back of the program.
The front cover (right) is drawn a student sketch, illustrating
the traditional timed fill-the-net with red or white balls contest.

National Undokai Song: I'm not sure if it's official, as part of the Health and Wellness Holiday, but the upbeat melody makes for a Happy Monday.

The festival music covers the map, the Japanese and world maps, in all different directions, level of formalities, and genres.  The opening ceremony features a flag raising ceremony while the band plays the national anthem.  During the dances, Japanese pop music chosen by the student performers blares through stereo speakers. Meanwhile, athletic obstacle or racing events feature some kind of upbeat motivational or "pace-up" soundtrack.  The adrenaline was flowing while skipping off the grounds to ABBA at my recent big red ball relay debut.  We won the event that round, and I attribute part of my confidence in the success to my years of karaoke experience at "Dancing Queen." 

The "Opening Clap" kicks of the ceremonies,
as team representatives salute the principal,
and prepare the field for warm up stretches.
Standing at attention to line up for pre-game and post-game student led stretches. Guests, parents, and faculty join in on the side lines,  echoing, "We are not alone."

After the closing clap, signaling the end,
athletes march back to their assigned seats.

This isn't an "everyone gets a trophy" society. Red has slaughtered
White the past three years, and my daughter is determined to be on
a winning team one day. So far, the arbitrary team assignments
has flipped her hat to the red side since 1st grade. 

Final Medal Count

The majority of events count toward the Red or White Teams' final score, yet grade-level-wide dance numbers and any competition involving parents are for exhibition purposes.  Apparently school officials know better than to put more pressure on parents than the already cut-throat competitive duty of multi-tasking: organizing the kids' to do and to bring list, while crafting the perfect obento and finally pitching the tent.  Although there is a closing "award" ceremony at the end of the games, it is without individual or team prizes in the form of gold, silver and bronze medals, let alone even a podium pose in the sense of a mini Olympics.  The score is displayed on large colored boards with hand-flipped numbers throughout the contest, and each triple digit number is announced via loud speaker at the end of the day.

The results generate rowdy applause for both sides, yet a more racous roaring for the winning "color."  Though tears are shed, fun is had by all.  My daughter, Red Team member defeated 3 years in the running, declared with cheer at bed-time that night, "I only wish undokai was every day!"  If that's the cheerful attitude she takes from her semester-long experience, then I suppose the gold medal goes to a successful chapter of this integrated slice of education. In contrast, from the judge's panel where I'm sitting, I felt more along the lane lines of needing a complete year to recover, a declaration I delivered internally, without the accompaniment of a megaphone or converted coke bottle noise makers. 

I confess a preference to buy my time by taking the next six months to round up the necessary supplies for the new colorful sets of cheering gear and get a "leg up" on placing the order for her slightly longer 4th grade chair bootees for next year. Perhaps her advancement to the next grade will flip her luck to the right color side, the "winning" side, of the hat. In the meantime, she continues to be motivated to run, skip, hop, tug and dance, thanks to experiencing all of the stages that the Health and Wellness Day events "fostered," while she counts down to next year. The make-it-yourself pom pon tables have turned and it's my daughter cheering me on to rally for the next round. Undokai can a fantastic experience for all ages, so with my thermos of 500 ml non-carbonated Fountain of Youth-Sports, I toast to another successful Happy Monday policy.  And I would award the day the Gold even if that (now) 32 year old bee found it's way through my Tug of War white gloves. 
Agony of "de-feet": Red team loses. The athletes try to lift their egos along with their dusty chairs equipped with protective slippers make the trip back to the  classrooms.  Next year the kids, and the chairs, will be back for a fresh round!

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