Recently, my son ran an 800-meter "marathon" at his local elementary school. He received a congratulatory "certificate of achievement" noting his participation and the fact he placed 79th. He has come to dread this annual ritual. It is damaging his fragile self-esteem and emerging identity by blatantly focusing on his physical condition. While students cheer him on at the finish line, inside he is hurting.

Many of my university students have shared in this humiliation — one indicated the marathon was her worst memory of kindergarten! While proponents argue it builds character and is a motivator for improving physical fitness, most educators agree such methods are questionable in their efficacy. Thus, I hope my students, many of whom plan to become teachers, will lobby to abandon this practice.

Nevertheless, school marathons continue throughout Japan and are a long-standing tradition. They won't disappear without controversy. Like undokai (sports day), it takes on Olympic proportions, involving the entire school, and is widely attended by parents wielding their video cameras, cheering their children on to victory. However, unlike undokai, the focus appears to be on winning rather than participation and physical fitness.