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Grab your bentō, mat and a prime spot: It’s undōkai

Parents offer their tips to surviving the school sports-day season in Japan

by Louise George Kittaka

For the next few weekends all over Japan, mothers will be up at dawn preparing elaborate bentō, while fathers toting plastic mats will set off to school to claim a prime spot (or perhaps vice versa in some households). It’s undōkai season!

Undōkai is sometimes described as a “field day” or even “athletic meet” in English textbooks, but most foreign parents seem to agree that “sports day” is the best translation, although some junior and senior high schools prefer the term taiikusai (sports festival). Surprisingly, perhaps, it was a visiting naval officer from Britain who came up with the idea originally. The very first Japanese undōkai was held at the Imperial Naval College in 1874, led by an English teacher named Frederick William Strange.

If you have multiple children in different schools, October can turn into one long parade of undōkai. There are also more casual community sports days, open to the whole neighborhood.

Our family’s record of four in one season, however, pales into insignificance alongside the ordeal faced by Amanda, an Australian living in Kyoto. “At one stage, we had seven!” she recalls. “Day care, elementary school, two for after-school care, two community sports days and one for the high school where my husband teaches.”

To help alleviate undōkai overload, some schools now hold them in late spring.

The annual undōkai is up there with entrance and graduation ceremonies as one of the most important events on the school calendar. American mother-of-two Diane in Chiba well remembers her first undōkai in 1984.

“It was at my son’s day-care center. I thought it was just a performance given by the kids. I showed up without even a mat to sit on or a drink or an onigiri (rice ball). Kind parents invited us to sit with them and I realized that this was a big deal.

A parent’s first task at the undōkai is to pick the best spot to spread the plastic mat in the designated seating area. Not only will your family eat lunch there, but it’s also where you’ll spend a lot of time waiting in between your child’s events. It can also double as a napping spot for a small sibling — or a bored father.

It isn’t good to be right at the front, where hordes of children will tramp back and forth all day, but too near the back makes it difficult to get up to take photos when your kid is in action. And you don’t want to be right by the toilets — trust me.

Don’t forget the bentō! Sandwiches, potato chips and an apple isn’t going to cut it. The undōkai bentō (lunch box) has to be attractive and colorful, as well as tasty and nutritious.

I used to pack our lunch into various plastic containers, but a few years ago I swapped them for the elegant lacquered stacking set that we use for New Year’s osechi dishes. It was the perfect size to arrange and carry our family’s lunch in. While the contents hadn’t changed much, suddenly my family thought everything looked marvelous.

To the uninitiated, the whole undōkai phenomenon might appear orchestrated to the point where spontaneity is snuffed out, especially at the beginning, when the students march into the arena and perform warming-up exercises en masse. At times, my sentiments have echoed those of British mother Claire in Kumamoto, who remarks, “I’ve muttered comments about North Korea under my breath in undōkai season but actually, on the day, I really enjoy them!”

As one of the least athletic kids to ever huff and puff her way down a running track, I can still remember the humiliation of running in the “consolation race” each year with all the other slowpokes at sports days in New Zealand. At least then I was free to sit on the sidelines, scratching my mosquito bites and watching as the sportier kids strutted their stuff.

Sitting on the sidelines isn’t an option at an undōkai, however! With the exception of one or two activities, every child participates in the events for their grade. The whole school is usually divided into two or three teams, with points awarded for the results in certain events. While winning is a good thing, it isn’t the end and be all; taking part is what counts.

Most elementary school undōkai will include a game, a choreographed performance to music and running races for each grade. Even the running is simply a series of one-off races, with the order based on height for younger children and speed for the older ones. There are no individual prizes. Later on, the fastest sprinters get their chance to really shine in the relay team races, which are generally last on the program.

Typical undōkai events include tama-ire (throwing colored balls into baskets) for the smaller children and kumi-taisō (intricate gymnastic displays, forming towers and pyramids) by the older ones. Some of the kumi-taisō stunts seem decidedly dangerous, but the teachers are quick to lend a helping hand when any of the kids look wobbly. The heavier, bigger children on the bottom bear the brunt of the work, but it’s no picnic for those on top, either.

Being small for her age and athletic, my older daughter was a natural for the role of leaping off the top of a four-child-high tower to a mat below. Practices were scary, she confessed, but by the day of the undōkai she could do it with confidence.

However, despite all due care, injuries sometimes happen — to the parents. Australian father Bruce grimaces when he recalls taking part in a parents’ obstacle race at his daughter’s kindergarten. “You had to crawl through this big plastic tube, and me and another guy dived for the opening at the same time. Ouch! I was seeing stars there for a while.”

Music is a big part of the undōkai. This could be a combination of anything from the latest anime songs to top-40 pop to tunes played with traditional Japanese instruments. Kathryn in Iwate, an American mother of two, appreciates that local culture is injected into her kindergarten’s undōkai. “My favorite part is where everybody makes a big circle and does Sansa Odori, the traditional dance of Morioka. Kids from the elementary come and play the drums or flutes, as do the teachers.”

Some of the music choices, however, may be puzzling to foreign parents. The song for her third-grader’s dance, “Memeshikute” by the group Golden Bomber, shocked Canadian Kirsten in Kanagawa.

“The title translates as ‘Acting Like a Girl,’ ” she explains. “Children of this age interpret that as ‘boys have to be strong,’ or ‘girls are weaker than boys’ ” While the teachers selected the song based on the upbeat tempo, Kirsten wished they had given more consideration to the messages being conveyed.

One area in which the teachers generally excel is in trying to make every child feel truly involved. My younger daughter has a classmate who cannot walk unaided, but she manages to participate in her wheelchair, with classmates or teachers helping as needed.

Ann, a mother of three grown sons in Saitama, recalls a heartwarming moment from an undōkai years ago: “The course for one of the races went around the outside of the school perimeter and ended in the schoolyard. The principal waited for a physically handicapped child to come around the last corner and finished the race running with him. All the parents and students applauded.”

Children sporting an injury can play a role, too. “Last year my older son had a fracture and so was sidelined from all of the junior high taiikusai activity,” says American Nancy in Hyogo. “However, he waved the flag for his team throughout the day and was given the task of shooting the pistol at the beginning of several races.”

Even babies can participate in undōkai. My youngest was only 9 months old at her first, and was one of several tots in her day-care class who weren’t yet walking. Undeterred, the teachers devised an “event” based on a nursery song. Each baby had a miniature mailbag and had to crawl or toddle over to their waiting parent to “deliver” a letter. The dazed look on my infant’s face in the photos was priceless.

Despite the best of intentions, however, undōkai simply aren’t fun for some youngsters. Susan, an American mother living in Tokyo, notes, “They can be very stressful for kids who tend to dislike group activities in general. My daughter used to be in tears for weeks before, and during the undōkai, too.” Yet this can be an opportunity for growth. “The last couple of years she’s learned to like it — almost — due to learning to find enjoyment in new challenges,” she adds.

As kids get older, undōkai become more relaxed, and so does parental participation. From junior high, families generally don’t eat lunch together, and taking photos of your young athlete is no longer quite the obsession it was in elementary school. (How many teenagers want to pose for photos by Mom or Dad, anyway?)

By high school, the kids do a lot of the organization themselves, and usually have a lot of fun in the process. At my son’s school, hulking teenage boys dancing to AKB48 songs dressed in girls’ uniforms was quite a sight.

This will be our family’s last elementary school undōkai, as our youngest is graduating next April. Luckily for my kids, they inherited my husband’s athletic ability, and my daughter is running in the school relay. I’ll be there with the bentō, the picnic mat and the camera, ready to cheer my kid on. Let the games begin!

Light Gist offers a less serious take on life in Japan on the last Tuesday of the month. Send all your comments and story ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp .