ISSUES OF JAPANESE EDUCATION PART TWO:
JAPANESE UNDOUKAI AND WHY THEY BOTHER ME
(sent to the world Mon, 12 Jul 1999)
With three Japanese nephews and nieces, I have been to a lot of Japanese undoukai (Sports Days) and, to be honest, I have always hated them. They are high-pressure, rushed affairs, where hundreds of families cram onto uncomfortable trackside tracts to get soaked or sunburnt. And for what? Only if you are lucky can you glimpse your kids as they zip past in a race that doesn't matter, and I ususally zone out trying to photograph them camouflaged in a parade of white shirts. An undoukai feels as interminable as a broadcast of the Academy Awards. But wait, I thought, that was only because I was watching my relatives' offspring; I thought I would soften my stance when my own kids participated--for if they enjoyed their Sports Day, so should I, vicariously. Unfortunately, we had a kindergarten undoukai yesterday and it rankled as much as ever.
Burning question: Why am I such a wet blanket when everyone else seems to be having the time of their lives? This essay will be an attempt to survey the phenomenon of the Japanese undoukai, and ask for comments in order to resolve some issues that are of great personal importance to me.
This essay is structured thus:
1) WHAT EXACTLY IS AN UNDOUKAI?
2) WHAT HAPPENED YESTERDAY
3) WHAT SEEMS TO BE THE PROBLEM?
1) WHAT EXACTLY IS AN UNDOUKAI?
A Japanese undoukai, literally "exercise meet", is an annual event held outside on a track and field for several hours one summer weekend day, usually Sunday, for primary schoolers (don't know secondary yet). This is not unique to Japan by any means: when I was a fifth and sixth grade in the US, I had a "sports day" (between two rival school systems in my hometown of Geneva, NY--North St./Prospect Ave vs West St/High St.). However, it was nothing serious--it lasted only for about six hours, it took place only in the last two years of my primary schooling, and as it was held on a weekday our parents did not come.
Contrast this with the fervor which undoukai are carried out here, where essentially it is a localized national event. Institutionally, I think
facilities for outdoor athletic events are required for certification as a Japanese primary and secondary school--for "parade grounds" exist in every school I have ever seen (Monbushou's full name isn't "The Ministry of Education, Science, Sports and Culture" for nothing), and I have never heard of a school not carrying out an undoukai. In fact, it, more than Western parent-teacher conferences or school plays, is treated as an "open house" for the school, with preparations and practice for the event in the lower grades lasting up to weeks, and both teachers and parents getting involved to put on a good show.
Moreover, undoukai seem to be prime occasions for the families themselves to show off their spirit for their children's education. Well-to-do parents, in my experience, generally put as much effort into preparing for this as Americans would, say, Christmas. Mothers work late and get up early (my wife was up at 5am, her mother up at four that morning) preparing food (bento, onigiri, whole coolers full of beverages--this isn't just a quick stop at the 7-11 for a bagful of treats). Any self-respecting family brings a stunning amount of portable amenities to these things--like folding plastic picnic tables with golf-cart parasols (I even saw a beer keg yesterday) and recording equipment (handicams and still photo cameras are de rigeur--the people sitting next to me yesterday had a lens on their camera as big as my forearm), but required under any circumstances are the ubiquituous blue sheets to spread out and to reserve your place in the sun. Fathers, for their part, become Okies around Indian Territory--showing up the night before (or lining up first thing in the morning if there is a moratorium on moonlit claim-jumping) to stake out prime real estate around the track for the best view of their kid (I am not exaggerating; the earliest people in line this morning came at 3 am--and this is for a Nanporo parade ground that never fills up). And extended families--grandparents, uncles and aunts, their kids, even dates--show up at these things, which last from around 9 am until 2 or 3 pm, to roast under the sun or keep off the drizzle. And as I said, this happens at least once a year, more often if your or your close relatives' kids are in different schools.
I know this is starting to sound like gushy T.R. Reid or Nicholas Kristof reportage, but I have been to enough of these events to understand that I am not really overstating things. Attendance is practically mandatory (even if daddy is too busy to go to these things, a mother not showing up to see their child participate would undoubtedly be the subject of derisive whispers, if not tantamount to child abuse). Schools spend lots of time money preparing and drilling their kids for the show--for it is in fact a show, and a good show makes the school look good--like it is fulfilling its educational duties (through sports?!). Undoukai and the feverish participation levels in Japan make the public events I experienced in the American schools look callow indeed.
I think you'll see what I mean if I focus on one undoukai:
2) WHAT HAPPENED YESTERDAY
JULY 11, 1999, NANPORO MIDORI-NO YOUCHIEN
8:45 AM TO 2 PM
We got off to a bad start: We were originally scheduled to hold our undoukai on July 4, gates opening at 7AM, but rain dislodged the event for the first time in our youchien's history (our principal, a very stubborn person, had us waiting out in the rain for a good hour before she realized this had no effect on the skies). So yesterday morning, the new date of the fete, I was on the track from 6:15 AM--because my wife is on the steering committee, and steerers' husbands get volunteered for the grunt work of setting up tents, moving chairs and all the sports equipment, hoisting banners, installing the outdoor PA systems, and acting as bouncers in case any miscreants tried to sneak in or take up an inordinate amount of space; I was selected for my build as one of the bouncers (don't ask me why; any real determined dad with some martial-arts training could probably kick the bejesus out of me). Our reward for all this trouble? First dibs on the stakeouts around the track (which was a serious benefit--even at 6:15 there were at least a hundred Okie daddies there waiting in line). Anyway, in contrast to last week, yesterday was fortunately dry but unfortunately hot--in fact one of the hottest days in the history of Nanporo (or so it felt like) with an ozone-hole strength sun and no wind. As I write, even the soles of my feet are glowing from sunburn.
Having two daughters (Amy, five, and Anna, nearly four) currently enrolled at this school kept me busy. I was either videotaping (my wife, busy managing the awards desk, tapped both me and her sister to take turns and not miss a single filial heartbeat), or getting up and participating in events. This may sound like mere kvetching, but for the sake of a complete record let me translate our undoukai schedule and give you an ideal what goes on at these events:
EVENTS AT OUR UNDOUKAI
1."DO YOUR BEST ATHLETICS" (Ganbare Taisou)
All kids run march onto the track and listen to four speeches welcoming them and telling them to do their best. Then they run around in warm-up relays.
2. "FIND THE GOAL" (Gouru o mezase)
Amy, ran in a relay with her classmates against three other homerooms.
3. "YO-I DON"
Anna ran in a relay against five other homerooms.
4. "ALBUM OF MEMORIES" (Omoide no Arubamu)
I ran a relay against daddies of other homerooms where I have to run up to a box, pull from it a bib, hat, or other device that I have to fiddle with before I can get on running, run up to a place with backpacks to shunt on, then run around the track to the finish line where you are told what place you finished in this particular relay (I took second) and get a prize (in my case, a plastic ice-cream scoop). Collisions, stumblings, and other scrapes are quite normal and seen as entertainment to an audience which probably watches auto racing for the crashes.
5. "MARCHING DRUM GROUP" (Maachingu Kotai)
Amy marched out with three other homerooms to drum, wave flags, batons and whatever to teacher accompaniment and scratchy Mickey-Mouse-Club soundtrack. It was clearly well-rehearsed and quite well coordinated (for a buncha five-year-olds)--the homeroom teachers really strut their stuff as closet majorettes.
6. "THE ELEPHANT GROUP IS STRONG" (Zousan wa Chikaramochi)
Six homerooms were divided up into three groups--elephant, giraffe, and some other tall animal--and surrounded a towering box like the 2001 A Space Odyssey Monolith with an open top. Kids threw as many tennis-ball-sized beanbags into the box top as they could within three minutes. Then the teachers counted the number of balls aloud (by throwing them up in the air as the emcee said a number), and the group with the most was the winner. As neither kid was in this event, this was the first time all morning we could take a break from recording.
7. "THE SHINY CHORUS" (Pikka Pika Onto)
Anna was in this, and I can't remember what she had to do; by now I was wilting from the heat.
8. "HELLO MY NEWFOUND FRIEND!" (Hajimemashite! Otomodachi ni natte ne.)
Fathers and mothers from three different homerooms each (turns out both my wife and I had to participate) were divided by gender into two groups on either side of the track. We had to run relays up to the other end of a track, find a placard with a piece of fruit on it, find a corresponding person of the opposite gender with the same fruit, and hold hands (both hands, running sideways) all the way back to the finish line. My partner and I took first place in our relay, and we got a small jug of laundry detergent each. Didn't get all that friendly, though.
9. "RUN, KIDS. THE 21ST CENTURY IS WAITING FOR YOU" (Hashire! 21 Seiki wa Kimitachi o Matteiru)
Another garden-variety running relay. Did we get a break? Nope. Amy was in it.
10. "BURN, YOU UNDOUKAI" (Moero, Undoukai)
I have absolutely no memory of what the hell happened here. My kids weren't in it, so like most of the other parents, I paid no attention.
11. "YOCHI, YOCHI, YOCHI"
Something for the pre-Kindergartners and their mommies to do in front of everybody.
12. "NICE! SHOOT" (yes, that was the title in Japanese too)
For all the grandparents out there, and there were a lot--easily sixty came forward. A relay would probably have killed a few of them, so they had their own version of the abovementioned #6 "Fill the Monolith" Elephant-box-and-balls. Amusing was how a half dozen decades of life had taught them how to cheat. As there was no rule stating, "you must only throw one ball at a time", they threw bunches of balls at once, and the winning group had an overflowing Monolith! Our Baachan should have been up there participating but she claimed mild heatstroke, and despite repeated coaxings my sister-in-law also refused to go up, saying she was too young and spry and it wouldn't be fair. Whatever. It was part of the "events for everybody there" philosophy.
13. "SWALLOW CHILD" (Tsubame no ko)
This was a circular song and dance number (with mommies and their kindred trying to suss out the dance steps by looking over their shoulder at demonstrating homeroom teachers in the center of the circle) that both my wife and Anna took part in with two other homerooms. Followed by:
14. "COMBINE YOUR STRENGTH" (Chikara o Awasete Hoisassa (whatever that means))
This was the daddies version, where I had to put on a brown tail with a headband with monkey ears, carry out a staff with a lantern on the end of it made of a milk carton, and help Anna carry off a bag with her name on it in a reenactment of some traditional Japanese story. I was too heatstricken to be culturally inquisitive, so I just let sleeping apes lie.
15. "JUNGLE BIBLE" (same in katakana)
I don't remember this, but Amy participated.
16. "BE MY SEA OTTER AND HUG ME" (Rakko Dakko Rakko)
Another circular song with mommies and kids, sticky-sweet with love and hugs.
You would think that this would be enough (and it was for Anna and the younger kids of three or four--their events are morning only). But this was just the pre-lunchtime--with still another SEVEN events to go. We got an hour off to eat our bento and other privisions (which were kept hot and steamy in our now sunbleached Tupperware),but went home to shower and get a beach umbrella for our stakeout. At 12:30, undoukai event number seventeen started:
17. "TURN THAT BEND FAST" (Isoide Kururi)
Amy and I were part of a relay where she and I were given a pole like Darth Maul's Jedi Lightsaber and told to hold it at each end. Then we had to run up to and around a pylon, one person running a lot more than the other around it, and come back and pass it on to the next person in our group like a huge baton. Our homeroom came in last, but so what. It was the last thing I would have to participate in.
Another relay, but this time for older kids who were along for the ride--kids up to about the age of ten running in ascending ages. My nephew and niece, who came along with my sister-in-law, ran it.
19. "BYONKO NO TOKUGI SOROTTE 1, 2, 3"
This was actually a lot of fun to watch, because four groups of about ten people had to jump rope at the same time. The same long rope, that is. Four homerooms of mommies did tag team four times, and the highest total number of times that they jumped without getting snagged (not an easy feat) was the winner.
20. "THE MYSTERIOUS PERSON IN THE SKY" (Sora Tobu Kaijin)
Sounds like Ultraman or something out of the X-Files, but I have absolutely no idea what this was about. It involved other daddies.
21. "ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE RAINBOW" (Niji no Mukou ni)
This was a circular song and dance in sign language. Amy and my wife participated.
22. TUG O'WAR (Sore Hike, O-esu)
Japan has a very interesting way of doing tugs o'war--where participants don't just pull, they jump back in sync (with a bunch of
"yoishou"s) to add a little extra momentum. Smart. Other than that, though, it's still plain ole tug o'war, with all the rope burns and sand scrapes.
23. THE FINAL RELAY
All the older kindergartners do a baton relay, which the kids really take seriously unless they (like Amy) realize that their homeroom is already a lap behind and has no hope of catching up. Two homerooms kept running neck and neck, and the homeroom teachers really got into it especially if they were winning.
And that was it. In sum, out of a total of 23 events, my kids, my wife, somebody else in our family, or I participated in seventeen of them! A very busy day indeed. We packed the car, I stayed behind to help take down the tents, and my wife attended a steering committee meeting (hansei kai) on how to improve the undoukai next year. Then we went home to slice open some watermelon and start a barbecue, and celebrate the marvellous open-window summer the way I'm used to doing.
It should have been a perfect summer day. But something still itches.
3) WHAT SEEMS TO BE THE PROBLEM, DAVE? WHY AREN'T YOU HAVING A GOOD TIME?
I'm not sure why, but there has always been something about Japanese undoukai which just doesn't sit well with me.
This is despite all the reasons to like them. First, it is overall very positive in tone. If you don't know a single word of Japanese when you go, you will have one word mastered by the end: "ganbarimasu", and all its conjugations. No matter what, from the opening speeches to the closing, from the winning teams to the losing, everyone has "done their best" or is encouraged to do so. It's a mantra, and as such may sound platitudinous, but I have to admit it is far preferable at this stage (moreover, at any stage, given the competitive zealotry of Japanese high school baseball) than the counterphilosophy of "winning isn't everything--it's the only thing". Moreover, even the above was controversial--mothers at yesterday's postmortem hanseikai, my wife said, even objected to the fact that there was even any competition at all. For what happens to the feelings of the children who lose?
Coupled with that positively, IMHO, is the fact that basically all competition is in the form of relay races--where kids have an incentive to
compete (for "competing merely for one's 'personal best'" isn't a value that incentivizes kindergartners yet) but are less likely to be ridiculed for not holding up their end of the baton if competition is more between individuals. Plus all kids have a chance to participate and strut their stuff in front of their parents' cameras.
Plus the undoukai is a great time for parents to show that they support their kids. I remember that I enjoyed having my parents attend my school plays (even if my only parts were measly: a tree in kindergarten, a bee which stung Cynthia Lennon in first grade, or Mr Darling in Peter Pan).
Finally, the most important reason: My kids said they enjoyed it, which should be all that matters. If I had grown up with undoukai, I might have enjoyed it more, too.
But I don't. Certain things really grate, like:
1) The fact that they are making little kids march. I know, you need crowd control--the only way you can get a sea of little kids to do anything in an organized manner is to tell them exactly what to do and give them a beat. But I also see it as expressly military--a remnant of Japan's fascist past (the chounaikai system also grates the same way, but partipants are consenting adults and plenty of people don't bother to do anything but pay minor dues), and it only gets more fascist-looking the higher the grades go. No matter how hard I try to shake my head out of it, and even if schools are importing jingles from overseas (Mickey Mouse Club is a march, and most of the tunes feel like John Philip Sousa meets bouncy Japanese melodies), there feels like an element of brainwashing involved.
2) All this effort on the part of parents feels so false. It feels like everyone has to get up early and do all this work just so they won't look like nonchalant parents in front of others. I know--it sounds terribly presumptuous of me to assume that Japanese don't do this out of sheer enjoyment--but the lack of exceptions (I have never seen a single family at an undoukai which looks like they didn't put hours into preparation) implies that people are not relaxed about participation. All this hurry-up-and-wait so they can get a couple of glimpses of their child in a crowd doing something neither individualistic nor creative. (Then again, as an educator, what could I do differently to encourage that precious individualism or creativity without creating grade-school loser-underclass?) I just don't understand whay people bother--unless it is a "generational brainwashing" (which sounds just about as culturally imperiaistic as you can get). See, I'm already tying myself up in ideological knots.
That's it! I think I hate undoukai because they seem to confirm all the stereotypes I had about Japan when I first came here--which I thought that age and sapience acquired through years of study and experience would lay to rest. They also make me, as an analyst, sound culturally intolerant to an unspeakable degree. Undoukai seem to corrupt the integrity of my own analytical software with self-derision.
But the point still stands, and this is something I would like to throw to everyone out there reading this. What is it about undoukai that makes me such a wet blanket? Does it do the same to you? My family seems to enjoy them, my kids say they enjoy them. So why can't I? Why can't I just dismiss the omnipresent niggling things as Japanicana, and show the cool, distant interest I have shown in Japan as a cultural entity whenever I face mild culture shock?
So that's what went on at a quite regular undoukai, and what I enjoyed about it. Yet I still find them objectionable. Can somebody out there understand what is bugging me culturally about this? Comments craved.
Dave Aldwinckle's writings Copyright 2000, Dave Aldwinckle, Sapporo, Japan