Living In Japan: Undokai (Sports Day)
Undokai Diary 運動会
Joanne G. Yoshida
The firework sounds at 6:00am. It's a fine day - the signal has been fired that the Un-do-kai will go on.
The elementary school children have been practicing hard for this day since they returned to school after summer vacation.
One of the highlights of the school year from Kindergarten to Junior High School is the yearly sports festival, called undokai.
This is my daughter's 8th time to participate in one, and thus my 8th time to watch. All grades participate in the daylong festivities - families join in to watch, to set up the tents, to cheer their children on, and to eat bentos.
My daughter goes to school a few minutes earlier then usual, dressed in her taiso-fuku (gym uniform), carrying a suito (thermos), the day's program of events, and the red cloth headband she will wear as this year she is part of the o-en-dan, or cheering section.
I go slightly after her to get a spot. Parents put down picnic sheets to reserve a place, mostly under the tents with good visibility of the games. I have learned over the years that I need not rush to get the spot I like, slightly beyond the tents under the shade of a large tree. Here we will be joined later by my husband's family, so I bring enough zabutons(cushions) for everyone.
Starting music plays. The P.A. announcements are made. Children line up marching, fathers gather outside the gate smoking; mothers amble in to the school grounds with younger children and babies in strollers.
The Un-do-kai begins.
This year's theme is:
Baskets full of red and white cloth balls are piled up under the tents, waiting in the wings, as a sixth grade representative continues with aisatsu (greetings) in the opening ceremony.
The student body stands at attention, dressed in white jersey shirts and blue shorts of their taiso fuku, with aka-shiro boshi (red and white reversible hats) turned to either red or white, depending on the team they are on.
The school is divided into Red and White teams - aka gumi and shiro gumi. This year my attention is on Red. My daughter tells me very little about what goes on in practice, so I am excited to see her participation in the o-en-dan for the Red Team.
My father always dreamed that one of his daughters would become a cheerleader, though neither my sister nor I even came close. He is excited when I tell him on the phone to NY that my daughter will be on the cheering squad, though I don't mention that instead of pom-poms and mini skirts, the cheering squad wear headbands and carry whistles and flags, and perform dance-like movements to the beat of taiko drums in a festival mood of both competition and cooperation.
Now my daughter is standing at attention as the white team waves their flags, and I listen to the chant of "Aka Gumi, Aka Gumi".
9:23 AM Jun-bi-tai-so
The day stretches on at a leisurely pace as the whole student body from grade one to six does warm-up stretches.
9:30 AM O-en-Dan
The two groups' cheering squads greet each other on the playing field. o-en-dan is more of a ritual than I'd noticed at other Sports Days. Arms reach to the sky in sync to the beat of the taiko, a call to action for both teams to do their best on this day.
10:00 - 12:00 AM
Running Races, Ball-into-basket games, Dance, and Cheers
12:00 AM Bento
There is an expression that is used during cherry blossom viewing season in Japan, hana yori dango, which means, "More than to see the flowers, we're really here for the enjoyment of the picnic foods". It can be said similarly for sports day as well - may be my original saying but the sentiments can be understood - Games yori, Bento. Thus, one of the real highlights of Sports Day is commonly known to be the BENTO LUNCH.
Parents, generally mothers, traditionally prepare elaborate lunch boxes filled with their children's favorites including tori kara-age, weiner sausage, o-nigiri, and other o-kazu or side dishes.
The day begins early for the parent who prepares the bento. I am lucky in that my husband's family has prepared my daughter's bento for much of her Sports Day history, including today's.
They live on an island and bring us stacked boxes filled with sazae, takenoko, shiitake, shrimp and other delicacies all cooked in delicious Japanese seasonings. I add my traditional baguette sandwiches as a token to do my share in the BENTO part of the festivities.
12:50 - 2:30 PM
After that climax, the afternoon progresses with more cheering, dance and games, with accompanying music from the dramatic to the animated. Events include: kumi-taiso (group stretches including human pyramids, handstands, and bridge pose), and ki-ba-sen (an exciting and seemingly dangerous game where one child is seated on the arms of two others and has to pull the hat off their opponent in a kind of knight and horse battle inspired joust).
The last events are a giant ball being passed from hand to hand and a group dance.
At the end the score is announced. The children anxiously look up as the numbers are revealed. The last number first - 7 for Red, and - 7 for White. Then the first number 6 for Red and 6! for White. Finally the middle number is revealed. 8 for Red and....What?! 8 for White.
687 to 687.
Today's game is a tie!!! Everyone cheers.
The closing ceremony proceeds with praise from the principal, and representatives from the upper and lower grades who share what parts of the Sports Day were their biggest challenge. A calm permeates the day, as we pack up our sheets and thank the skies for shining so BLUE for this Undokai day.
Joanne G. Yoshida