Sports festivals: menace to health?


It’s autumn in Japan, and you know what that means — sports festivals! Oct. 10 is Sports Day, a national holiday started in 1964 to mark the opening day of the Tokyo Olympics. Since then, autumn has been a time of year for schools and communities to hold annual sports festivals.

They might be better called exercise festivals, however, since I’m not sure that “botori kassen” (bamboo pole battles) and musical chairs are necessarily sports.

Our sports festival is sponsored by the local school but encompasses the entire community. Events such as the Shiraishi World Cup Unicycle Performance by the elementary school students are alternated with events for all community members. Other events such as the three-legged race are designed for parents and their children to do together. There is the good ole Hole in One contest for the old folks. Some events, such as the bamboo pole battle, have entire neighborhoods face off against each other. Even the really old “o-baa-chans” come out with their carts to take a lap around the track. Community members go home feeling refreshed from the exercise, and their sore muscles remind them how important exercise is.

This year the sports festival happened to coincide with Typhoon Shanshan. The ferries had stopped running due to the rough seas, and the wind was so strong it could blow a dog off a chain. That morning, an announcement came over the island’s P.A. system: “We know it is terrible weather today but we hope that everyone will put in extra effort to attend the school sports festival today.” How’s that for community spirit?

At the school sports festival this year, there was no beer given out with “o-bento.” I sat down next to some friends, a group of men who had brought their own cooler of beer and had parked their car on the sidelines. These fathers are on the local softball and badminton teams at our community center.

As soon as I sat down, I heard someone say, “Someone’s chucked a fetlock!” A middle-aged man in the relay had suddenly stopped in the middle of the track and was holding his leg. His face was all twisted with pain. Everyone looked on in collective shock while he was hauled off the track by some of the schoolteachers.

While all this was taking place, I had accepted a beer from the fathers and was feeling a little self-conscious, since we appeared to be the only ones drinking beer at the entire festival. Drinking in Japan at festivals has deep roots in Shinto and has always been a part of community bonding, even at sports festivals. Until recently, the Japanese thought nothing of taking part in such unhealthy habits such as smoking and drinking, yet they were still some of the healthiest, longest living people in the world.

It seems Japan has recently bowed to pressure from the West to change from doing what used to be natural and fun to doing what’s “right.” As a result, they have banned alcohol and cigarettes from public places, especially when children are around. In the meantime, people in the West have shifted from smoking and drinking to eating themselves to sickness and death. After all, the main reason people smoke and drink is to relieve stress, and stress has yet to disappear. Most people will merely find another unhealthy outlet for relief.

“Someone’s chucked a fetlock!” I turned to watch someone’s slightly overweight mother come tumbling down on her ankle. Her face was twisted with pain. Everyone looked on in collective shock while she was hauled off the track.

By the end of the day, most people had participated in a variety of events. I was sitting and resting on the sideline with a beer.

“Someone’s chucked a fetlock!” I saw an old man lying on the ground. This man had a known heart condition. Everyone gave a collective sigh of relief as he rose to his feet and waved that he was OK.

Later, I heard that this was the first time anyone had ever been hurt at our sports festival. As traditions rapidly disappear from communities like ours, I wonder if sports festivals will be next, deemed incorrect because people hurt themselves under the pressure to perform.

Maybe we should just go back to distributing beers.