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School festivals of fun in the name of sport

by Thomas Dillon

Autumn in Japan means much more than cooler temperatures and colorful leaves. It means . . . sports!

At least, that is, for one day.

“I used to hate Sports Day,” says my wife, speaking not so much about the Oct. 10 holiday, but of the regular sports festivals held by almost every Japanese institution, from kindergartens to prisons, each fall. “I couldn’t run. I couldn’t jump. I couldn’t do anything. Yet for one day each year, I had to prove this in public.”

Not that my wife has been in prison. Instead, at Sports Day events all through her school years and even on to her assorted places of work, her crime has been a state of athleticism more akin to a tin bucket than a human being. Which still leaves her a little more coordinated than me.

I used to hope our sons would somehow mutate past their parents’ stumble-bum genes to become multi-millionaire super-jocks — a hope that flew apart on my older boy’s first Sports Day when I saw him out-sprinted by another lad best described as a tub of pudding on legs.

“See!” says my wife, each time we watch a similar Sports Day race.”What’s so fun about this? They don’t make kids stand in front of a crowd and do algebra, do they? No, that is considered putting children on the spot. But run 100 meters? Against a field of mostly muscle-bound bullies? In front of hundreds of spectators? Tell me . . . why is this necessary?”

I rattle my head and out comes the pat answer: “It’s not winning that counts; it’s competing. Everyone applauds the last finisher, too.” And that, she tells me, is a sentiment preached by winners, not klutzes with two left feet.

“If you see a fourth-grader add two and two and get eight, do you clap your hands and shout, ‘Great try! Way to fight, kid!’? No. You might mumble encouraging words, but in your head you’re thinking, ‘Yipes! I’m glad that child’s not mine!’

“Well,” she continues, “That’s the same thing athletic types think when they see some kid with the foot speed of a house plant. Ultimately, Sports Day is for Neanderthals who believe that might equals right.”

True, many Japanese sports festivals do smack of a military flavor. The way students will parade in formation and salute the speakers’ stand sometimes hints of a past that history books here discuss only in the most obscure language.

Meanwhile, few things are less obscure than being lapped in a footrace. “I mean,” my wife says, “Why Sports Day? Why not Math Day? Or Poetry Day? Or Stay in Bed Day?”

Sports Day, of course, took official holiday status after the Tokyo Olympics, although athletic festivals were common long before that. And the popularity of such events — as my wife well knows — has no real relation to speed and dexterity.

You see, the emphasis is always more on “festival” than “sports.” And there is nothing the workaholic Japanese love more than a festival. For, basically, Sports Day provides another excuse not to work, but play.

Take schools, for example. Since the event is open to the public, teachers make frantic efforts to see that everything goes picture-perfect. This means kids must practice — which may wipe out as much as a week of regular lessons. Then there may be a clean-up day afterward or even an extra day off for recuperation. Even the clumsiest student will gladly plod out 100 meters in exchange for a week’s freedom from classwork.

Then again, many races aren’t quite Olympic endeavors. Here’s a brief list of the more renowned Sports Day contests:

1) Bun-on-a-Hook: After a brief sprint, participants must snatch a roll of bread dangling from a string, using only their mouths. This is trickier than it looks, but the consolation to snapping about like a mad beaver is that you get to keep the bread.

2) Flour Candy: Participants run, dunk their head in a water basin, and then try to fish a small square of taffy out from a tray of flour, again using only their mouths. Each person thus ends up with a face similar to a smashed cream puff — only without the puff.

3) Crowd Search: Participants run and grab a piece of paper (No, not with their mouths!). On this is written the name of an item or person they must find in the crowd. Participants then have to tow this item or person with them across the finish line.

At school events, I have often seen students lugging desks and chairs down the track toward the finish, although some boys will always run and grab a pretty girl no matter what.

This particular race makes me nervous as it seems there is always a paper reading: “Find dopey-looking foreign male.” Sooner or later someone yanks me onto the field.

4) Costume Parade: Here certain members of each team dress up in silly costumes and waltz about the crowd, finally being ranked by a panel of judges. Typically, the guy dressed like a dopey-looking foreign male wins hands down.

The bottom line is that no one takes the day seriously.

“Neanderthals do,” says my wife.

“Yeah, but most people have evolved past that.”

Yet, sports festivals themselves seldom change. Events today are held in very much the same manner as they were decades before. They provide a happy, holiday link between all generations.

Which to us means only this: Our descendants will forever be cheering some klutzy child with two left feet.