Sports Festival: This is What an American Field Day Looks Like on Crack

Sports Day – September 6, 2009

It would be my first week of classes, but they’ve all been canceled for Sports Day practice.

…I didn’t make that up. An entire week’s worth of classes were foregone in lieu of sports day preparations. It’s an annual festival, held at the beginning of the second half of the year (the school year in Japan begins in April!), and don’t let the innocuous title fool you – it’s sports day like America does field day… times 100. There are races, relay races, parent-teacher races, a pep rally, tug-o-war,  tire fighting (didn’t make that one up either!) and even a school-wide dance — not a dance like after the Homecoming game with short skirts and booty popping. No, this is formal, traditional, in unison and hard. If all this isn’t enough, there are also balance beams, a pep band, pom-poms, scores galore and even air guns. These are not games; this is battle.

Sports team coaches spend practice week on the field, training their soldiers. Whistles in mouths, they repeat, “Again! Again!” while yelling for tighter, straighter formations. I wonder if the 200 students will eventually, actually meld into one single person (with this thought the coaches turn and glare at me – they’ve sensed my doubt). It’s moments like these when samurai culture of duty, honor and, well, perseverance, doesn’t seem like so distant a past.

Meanwhile, teachers (read: women teachers) spend the week weeding the field, squatting for hours at a time on muscles I swear only exist in the Japanese. I’m horrified by curious about this weeding business, and when I ask my head JTE (Japanese English Teacher) why the teachers are weeding, she looks at me like I have asked her what my own name is, and responds, “That’s what teachers do in Japan.” Well… duh.

The day itself (the real day – after the training has concluded) lasts six hours – plus about 30 minutes this year. It’s a color war- red versus white, and the winner takes an antique (looking) cup as the prize (and the honor of victory, of course!). The students hate Sports Day, the teachers have to love it, and the parents wax nostalgic for all the years they did it and hated it.

So this is my first week of classes, and I hear the bell mark the passing periods as I sit out in the noonday Japanese sun, watching students knock each other off the shoulders of their peers. The speed limits in this country don’t reach over 60km (37 miles an hour…), but children play chicken out of water. I’m dumbfounded. I look away in terror and, instead, watch the sparkling sun emit orange bursts of color that look (and feel) like flames over the trees and mountains.

I’m at my base school this week – Yamato Junior High. Schools all over Japan have an annual Sports Festival, but this is the one that I will be attending. This school is one of my favorite places. From the school field, which is really a large dirt square (rectangle?) with chalk marks for track lanes, I can watch the mountain tops flirt with the clouds. On clear days you can see the tips of the trees covering the mountainsides and almost imagine their branches turned towards the sun. It’s as though the entire country is sunbathing in a wide open molten lava room – a very sticky molten lava room. Japan is hot, and that’s an understatement.

I’ve volunteered  to perform the school dance with the students. In my mind, I envisioned the accolades – “What ancient natural Japanese rhythm she has!” What I didn’t envision is the pain shooting through the thigh muscles I just discovered existed (do all humans have these?) after a 40 minute cram session to learn the dance. I get 40 minutes to learn a dance they seem to intrinsically know – so much for my natural ancient rhythm. I also envisioned the “Sora” dance rooted deep in Yamato history – maybe telling the story of an old feudal lord (daimyo) in his quest for power… or love (paradoxical since Japanese doesn’t have a word for love, but work with me here). With throbbing, wobbling legs, I hold onto a desk for support as I ask Mizuno-sensei (my head JTE) the history of the dance.

“This dance,” she pauses, and I get excited for a long, drawn out, emotional story. “This dance is 5 or 6 years old. We had to update the old one.” She goes back to her work.

Evidently, my visions are blurry.

And finally – after my cram session and two days without practice (I barely remember the chorus), it’s Sports Day. Sports Day starts at 10. Exactly at 10. There is an opening ceremony (I hear there’s even one for the intricate Teeth Brushing Time of Night festival). After the ceremony, the festivities begin. The field is lined with families.

My favorite part of the day is first – the warm-up dance. As a school, all 200 students stretch to the left and to the right, to the beat of the corniest, cheesiest music imaginable. It’s sing-songy, high-pitched and I imagine the only lyrics is “kawaii” (cute) repeated in different notes. (As a side note, I’ve recently discovered EVERY person in Japan knows this exact warm-up… and it’s what they do before any physical activity, with or without the music! Fascinating!) If the fact that the dance and music exists isn’t humoring me enough, realizing that all the parents and siblings are joining in on the sidelines definitely IS. The ancient warm0up dance ritual has apparently been brought down through the generations; maybe I should have learned that one instead!

After the warm-up, the day unfolds rapidly. It is EFFICIENT. They get new races set up in seconds, and the kids are off before I realize what has happened. The red team won last year and is ambivalently trying to defend their title. My allegiance, non-existent as it should be, is with the white team. They seem to have a disproportionate number of the kids who wear glasses on their team, and this gives them a big boost in my book.

When it’s time for the dance, I hesitantly make my way to the field. I run out with the kids… and it begins. I don’t remember a lot of the moves, but somehow, someway (by following the girl beside me!), I keep my own…. sort of. Really, I make a complete idiot of myself, but the kids are excited I’m there (most of them didn’t know I was going to be involved), and the parents and especially school teachers are ecstatic. At the enkai (staff party) after the day is over – teachers pour me sake and express their gratitude in the kampai (opening toast) to me for getting involved. Regardless of how silly I looked doing it, I had a great time, and it feels great to make my school proud.

Besides the school dance, I also join in the parent-teacher relay. When my name gets yelled out by my partner (they do a puzzle to figure out who their partner is as part of the relay), I run to the field, and my partner and I roll a tire down to the finish line. It sounds easy, but she’s a foot shorter than me, and our legs are just not capable of going the same speed. Regardless, after a lot of laughs, we hit the finish line and are congratulated on our speedy finish (the Japanese are so kind they will tell you you are a champion even if you come in last place!).

At the end of the day, the kids are sweating, exhausted and many start crying. It’s refreshing to see how much they care. It reminds me that teenagers really are the same everywhere – apathetic on the outside, but they feel everything more intensely than any adult around them.

I didn’t understand most of what was said during the day, and I can’t remember the names of anyone who introduced themselves to me, but I experienced a new piece of Japan –  and really enjoyed myself. And, most importantly, ALL the kids survived the chicken fights and the tire fighting!

The teams at their "home bases" before the opening ceremony

The teams at their "home bases" before the Opening Ceremony

Families and friends joining in the warm-up dance from the sidelines

Parents and friends joining in the warm-up dance from the sidelines


The Warm-Up Dance!! I wish I had this on video...


One of the relay races had the kids on unicycles! These kids can do ANYTHING!


The same relay race had them on balance beams, fighting nets and somersaulting on a mat


Tug-o-war -- one of my JTEs asked me the name of this game in English after Sports Day... It took us 15 mintues of writing it and repeating. She got the pronunciation, but I couldn't explain to her why it's called that. Anyone know?!


They called for volunteers from the on-lookers to play against all the kids for this round!


The infamous tire fighting! All the girls race to get the tires placed in the middle and get them back to their team. They end up knocking each other over, pushing each other... everything, to get these tires. It's intense!


After the girls finish their tire fighting, the boys get in groups and build "horses." They then run at each other and try to capture each the headbands off the other team's members. Seriously, I don't know how anyone survives this game.


...aaaaand the final score - the Red Team wins again! My poor kids with glasses - maybe next year!

And finally – The Dance Video. haha This is me fumbling through the “Sora” dance… you can see me looking to the student beside me to remember what to do. The jumping up and down parts are also about the least flattering thing EVER filmed, ever, of anyone. haha I look like a fool, but hey – that’s what I do best! 🙂 Enjoy!


Next post: Whoa, I have a JOB here?! — all about teaching in Japan

Feminist-san LIVES! Get ready for a deluge of posts to catch you up with my crazy life in Japan!

~ by C on November 9, 2009.

3 Responses to “Sports Festival: This is What an American Field Day Looks Like on Crack”

  1. haha awesome. I especially enjoyed the dance video.

  2. I really enjoyed that! It is amazing to think that if you put everyone from Japan in a big square they could ALL do that same dance! Amazing!

  3. Pam – hahaha yeeeeah. which is more embarrassing – this or single ladies? This is apparently a year of making a fool of myself on camera!

    Mom – that’s a really funny mental image. I’m not sure if that’s quite true… I’ve seen that everyone maybe in my city or prefecture knows that warm-up routine. Maybe it’s across Japan… it does seem that way!

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