Whether they like sports or not, it is compulsory for schoolchildren in Japan to participate in “undokai” (athletic gatherings or “sports days”), with the main one usually coinciding with the Sports Day national holiday.
What is the origin of sports days, and how did they develop?
Following are basic questions and answers on undokai:
Who participates in undokai?
Mostly children and students in kindergarten, elementary, junior high and high schools. Neighborhood associations called “chonaikai” or “jichikai” also hold local sports days for residents.
When is the event usually organized?
Schools and community groups generally host sports days in autumn, while some do so in late spring. Oct. 10 is a popular date because the national holiday marks the opening ceremony for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, and some schools devote more than a month of preparation for the big day of contests.
What is a typical program?
Schools usually kick the day off with a parade in the morning, followed by a speech from the principal. Public schools will be sure to sing the national anthem with the Hinomaru flying in the background. They also perform “radio exercises” before the races.
During the lunch break, it is common for students to eat with their families in the schoolyard as if it were a picnic.
The event concludes with the announcement of the winning teams or classes.
What are the common races?
The tug of war, relays, “kumitaiso” (groups of gymnasts forming pyramids and other shapes), and “kibasen” (cavalry fights), in which a male team leader carried by three members fights to get the opponent’s bandanna.
“Tama-ire,” in which participants toss small beanbags into a bamboo basket attached to a high pole, is also a popular game.
Junior high and high schools often have “oendan” (cheering squads) that are usually composed of boys. Many wear black “gakuran” (school uniforms) or long happi coats.
The oendan cheer by waving flags, beating drums and yelling. Female cheerleaders are also common.
Is it true that classical music is often played at these events?
Yes. Commonly heard are “The Saber Dance” by Aram Khachaturian, music from “The Nutcracker” ballet by Tchaikovsky and “Radetzky March” by Johann Strauss Sr.
When was the first undokai organized?
The first took place in 1874 at the Imperial Naval College, according to the book “Undokai to Nihon Kindai” (“Sports Day and Modern Japan”) by cultural studies professor Shunya Yoshimi at the University of Tokyo.
During the Meiji Era, schools were established based on the European education system.
The first sports day was proposed by Adm. Archibald Lucius Douglas of Britain’s Royal Navy during a visit to Japan. He said he wanted to hold a British sports event in which participants competed in various races, and the Imperial Naval College obtained permission from the Ministry of Navy.
About 230 students participated in a practice session, coached by English-language teachers, according to the book.
The games included a pole vault, a three-legged race, a blindfolded race, a race where buckets of water must be carried on athletes’ heads, and a pig-chasing race.
How did it spread to schools nationwide?
Sports day first spread among colleges, according to “Undokai to Nihon Kindai.” A sports meeting was held at Sapporo Agricultural College in 1867, and at the predecessor of the University of Tokyo in 1883.
It was gradually introduced to high schools, junior high and elementary schools during the Meiji Era, partly due to then Education Minister Arinori Mori, who made gymnastics compulsory in elementary schools.
Has the event changed over the years?
It has. In the early Meiji Era, it was held as part of a school excursion to a nearby field or shrine, but after the government ordered elementary schools to set up gymnastics fields in 1904, more schools began to host undokai on their own.
Sports days also were used as military training during the Meiji Era, according to the book.
In the Taisho Era from 1912 to 1926, singing the national anthem became common practice at undokai. More group activities were added during the Showa Era.
Recently, the number of companies hosting sports days has been rising, consultant Ryujin Nishikawa wrote on Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corp.’s website in 2009.
According to Nishikawa, corporate sports days began to disappear in the 1990s, as the seniority and lifetime employment systems began to collapse. Ironically, the global financial crisis has revived them, and they are now favored as a way to improve communication among employees.
Nishikawa wrote that Undokai.com, a company that organizes sports days for clients, is capitalizing on the trend.