(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:




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:

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:


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.
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.
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.
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.
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.



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


From RC:

Dear Dave,

Don't have time to write a long response at the moment, but I would just like you to know that you have a soul-mate on this issue in me. There is SOMETHING about this issue that grates at my soul. (snip)

If I were to summarize my feelings on the issue, I would say that in my case, what turns me against these events is that despite my best effort to bury self and respect how the others around me feel on the issue, there is very little reciprocity in terms of the others around me at least accepting the fact that I have different feelings and feel uncomfortable with parts of the show. I think that this basic non-reciprocity issue becomes even more of a concern for me as I see my daughter through the self-same processes that led me to become concerned
in the first place slowly encourage her to put little amounts of distance between herself and myself. For now that is all I have time to say.
Please know that whatever your particular reasons for feeling the way you do about these UNDOUKAI, I do sympathize deeply.

From T:

Dear Dave,

I too had an undokai yestarday. my first, although it was a university event rather than a primary school one. I have been here long enough to know that to get to the "fun", one must listen to lots of speeches, do warm-up drills, and spend a while dividing up into teams (If this hasn`t been done already by some committee meeting every week for a month). Howver, once the game began, in our case it was volleyball, we had a blast. (snip) At the end we were given an hour and a free ticket to the onsen, bathe, and get back for the celebration party (more speeches, then a huge spread of lobster, roast beef, whole chickens etc..).

I had an interesting discussion with a visiting New Zealand prof. who commented that his Uni would never have such an event unfortunately. I too remarked that at my US Uni we had student events, or stuffy academic departmental events, but nothing as fun as a undokai (with bath and food thrown in). My response was that Westerners don`t like to have everything scheduled, and would rebel at such control. However, but giving up a little independence I found the participation and commaradery to be the real point--probably the same feeling your kids had as well.

From CR:

Hey, Dave.

You got me thinking about this since I hope to be facing the same problem in another 7 years or so, (no kids yet or Undokai experience).
But watching from the roadside a couple of times I did notice something that bugged the sh_t out of me.

The hand-in-hand winners. Well I don't know about your situation but I seen several races where nobody lost or can I say won. Like your above quote,

"--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?"

This I think is a major problem with elementary school kids. They can't face losing, even if it's a card game like UNO. (snip)

What might be bothering you has already been written by you -- the whole idea of no winners and all the over zealous preparation. Everything is so scheduled and efficent without any of the hap-hazardness of back home. Nothing is DEKITO. I'm a western New Yorker actually. Let's face it this day is actually for the parents when you think about it and not for the little kiddies. All the little tykes get out of the whole day is maybe a ribbon and a day off from school -- come on, who wouldn't enjoy a day off from school.

"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."

Umm, I hate to say this but you're not going to get rid of this problem for at least another 20 years. Like you my parents are immigrants but they are from Germany. My father took about 15 years of straight living in the states before he erased most of the German side effects. But I wonder at times if he really ever became a true american? Japan still drives me up the wall much like as when I go back to visit relatives in the motherland. These 2 countries are eerily similar. But this is getting off the topic, sorry. (snip)

From JH:

Having been to at least 20 undokai myself I sympathize completely with your experience and am glad that you are the one with children who haven't yet started elementary school. I have one, just one! undokai yet to go. I am eagerly awaiting the end of this annual ritual. However, I am fortunate my wife does not make a big deal out of undokai. We go at 9:30 a.m. just after the opening speeches, set up our tarp near the back and only go up to take a couple of photos of whatever event the boys are in. Usually I bring a pile of homework with me and a good book. Bento is KFC, but not in the original bucket. We also do have a few other goodies as well. My in-laws live in Kushiro and only made it to the first grade undokai for each boy. That's plenty. Michael has been a relay runner all five years so we stick around till the bitter end. I think undokai is a way of getting dads into the school grounds once-a-year. Personally, I'd rather have a picnic with the family.

From KK:

Hi, Dave.

I enjoyed reading about your undoukai experience.

I was just wondering why you wanted to attach a cultural label to the displeasure which you experienced.

Think about it.

You mentioned heavy preparation, little sleep, hard work, and unpleasant weather conditions (which caused you to get a sunburn). Additionally, I would have been worried about the health of my kids in such an atmosphere.

The undoukai was also held in an extremely materialistic setting; i.e., food, cameras, best sites, etc., and there was intense competition and a heavy emphasis on pride.

You seemed to be under a great deal of pressure to perform, yourself; i.e., to maintain "face"; got to win that race attitude and performance (Congratulations!), but even with a partner you mentioned little "closeness." No "love" is no "good."

Additionally, you strike me as being attentive to details and the truth behind the facade, so to speak. Therefore, you
were turning in a great "outward" performance but acutely aware that it was only "outward"; that is, not reflective of your true inner feelings.

If your kids liked the undoukai, it was probably because they were tuned into family and friends and the festive atmosphere, and I assume that they hadn't lost sleep nor did they have to do much (if any) manual labor. Their teachers had also probably worked them up emotionally for the undoukai, and this was the culmination of that excitement.

I wonder if the Japanese parents reflect on their own undoukai experiences as children when they attend the undoukai of their sons and daughters. They may just want to guarantee for their children the same great experiences they recall having had themselves.

On the other hand, I'd assume that there are many parents out there who do not enjoy the undoukai for the same reasons that you don't; i.e., high pressure, competitive event for the parents. At least you made a good showing! Think of the less athletic parents.

If the undoukai had been a more relaxed "barbecue" type event with beer, music, dancing, good conversation, potluck style with no notice of who brought what to the party, do you think you would have enjoyed it more? If the atmosphere had been less tense (and tense does not mean militaristic), do you think you would have had a better time? What if all the parents just "showed up" instead of waiting in line hours in advance to stake out spots? (Would you prefer an empty movie theater to a long line?)

As you know "avoiding pain" is a much stronger stimulus than "seeking pleasure," so it seems to me that if you can come to grips what was causing you the pain, both physically and mentally, you'll figure out why you don't like "undoukai."

I would guess that you should seriously consider the stress, lack of sleep, strenuous physical activity, and the sunburn.

From FS:

Hello David !

For what it is worth : I never liked them either, but when my children were in kindergarden, it wasn't THAT bad. They had sense enough to see to it that it was finished by noon.

Elementary school kept getting worse as children grew up. 1st and 2nd year students' turn came early and they were free to picnic there with their family or go home. 5th and 6th year students had to stay till the very end and.... clean up the place. A very big job . Mountains of trash! I always found it strange that adult participation didn't include at least cleaning the space they had picnicked on . Not my idea of "example".

I don't even remember if parents of Junior high school students weren't invited or if their presence wasn't mandatory.

< 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? >

It is more than a cultural thing: YOUR children are part of it, aren't they ?

At this point, when they say that they enjoy it, I think it is genuine. If/when the time comes when they mention ( it takes a lot of courage to do so ) that actually they don't enjoy it that much, or don't enjoy it as they used to, a cool remark from you - it is neither a sin nor the end of the world - will help them... breathe. Mummy may not understand, at first.

I don't think that telling yourself that you *have to* enjoy those undoukai would help. Of course, you are polite about an event that your daughters enjoy, that your wife works very hard for, and you are happy that they have a good time. You praise performances and promise that it will be better next time when they aren't satisfied with their results.

From AL:

Hello Dave.
(snip) I hear what you're saying about the negative qualities that surround Undoukais in Japan. Although I am not fond of them for some of the same reasons as you have mentioned, I try not to be too judgemental of the Japanese and their Undoukai tradition.

When I think back to my own childhood I recall the fanaticism of parents, coaches and children that surrounded the game of hockey. In the playoff season, winning was everything and the only thing on every young player, parent or coach's mind.

During my childhood I recall both moments of joy and heartache while playing many different sports. Yes, in my case, I chose to participate in these sports, but not all my team mates were given the choice to play, many were told by their parents that they had to play.

The point I'm trying to make is that I believe the Undoukai phenomenon is present in every society, it simply manifests itself in different forms. For example, in Canada tens of thousands of school boys and school girls dream of becoming professional hockey players or Olympic figure skaters ( if they do not, then their parents do).

When I attended my first Undoukai in May, I did see differences between a sports day in Canada and in Japan, but I also observed many similarities. One of the most striking positive differences was that there seemed to be a lot more smiles on the faces of the students and the students at my Jr. high school were much more involved with the organization of the event than students are in Canada.

I do believe that "Participation" and "Fun" are the two most important objectives of the Undoukai. Even though, the negative aspects you have pointed out are present in the Undoukai, as they are in all sporting events that bring together human beings. From my own experience, I know that competition between children, parents and families is not unique to the Japanese school ground . One need only to sit down and watch a community pee wee hockey game in Canada to see that many negative attributes of the Undoukai are present in North American culture.

What I think is more important to be aware of is the laughter of the children and the smiles on their faces...they are happy and for the most part, unaware of the dark side of the Undoukai or more specifically, human nature.

From DK:

I have the same kinds of feelings that you do about the school undokais. I find it disturbing that the preparations for this event take place under the guise of education. If it is that, then what is the behavioral objective? What are the desired outcomes?

I most agree with your comments about marching, and I have to agree that this is probably the most disturbing feature of the event to me. I've seen jr high school kids drilling out in the hot sun with the whole school mobilized. It's frightening, and with the kimigaiyo and the hinomaru as the official symbols of the country, then all we need are sharpened bamboo sticks.

>there feels like an element of brainwashing involved.

I know some of the effort put is just hard work, but for some of the dads with whom I associate, it is fun for them. They drink, talk to their buddies, and enjoy the festive atmosphere. For moms it's the competition, the great bento show-off, and they get to hang with other moms. I think this also reaches them on an emotional level that I find hard to relate to. They did this when they were kids, often on the same school grounds and with the same people. Now their kids are out there doing just what they, the parents did, oh so many years and so much lost innocence ago.

In our neighborhood, there is a neighborhood undokai. That is far less objectionable to me. It seems to avoid all of the negative aspects of brainwashing and maintain the friendly atmosphere of an activity shared within a community. I really enjoy it, actually. Everyone turns out. The kids get to play and get some junk for participating. They love it. The parents get to socialize and play, too.

There are some Japanese parents who object to the school's undokai. The parents of whom I speak are already out there in the society. They are educating their kids at home as well as in the school, and the schools are verbal about not liking it. (I do the same thing, but the school and the school board have had to deal with me before, and are probably not anxious to do it again.) One part of public education that they object to is the undokai preparation. "And the school complains about how we educate our children..." is their take. I agree. To be quite frank with you, until this year, I've never worried about it, because my son hasn't been too involved. The nursery school he attended was [Christian], and last year he attended an international school. Now as a second grader, we'll see what happens.

From SR:

Hi Dave.
You are such a party pooh-per. How can you rain on the Undokai parade. That's almost as bad as rubbing chopsticks together or making fun of the emperor's daughter. Let's face it, you'll just never be Japanese, despite all the natto and sake. Didn't you know that there is something genetic about undokai(s)? As for me, all the things you hate about them, I can't get enough of. Not only do I need no excuse to wake up early to claim my patch of ground, I never tire of looking at all those hours of video footage or stacks of photos. And what better
way to spend a day than to enjoy the camaraderie of community members. We can all feed off each other's ganbaru spirit as we cheer on our children. The participants have fun, the spectators have fun, only Dave can't seem to take off his cultural blinders and enjoy himself. I bet you don't much like the shrine festivals and all their wonderful games and prizes either. And dare I ask what you think of the ritual 10 min. health and welfare break at the pool. As for advice, all I can say is hang in the and let experience take its course. Another half dozen undokais under your belt (plus all the beer) and you'll be numb enough to stop asking questions and get into it.

From KD:

Hi Dave,

I have a little girl who spent four years in a hoikuen down here.

I share your dislike for this event--mainly because I was brought up to believe that school is supposed to be, by and large, a domain for children. My mother came to my school in the States sometimes, but she came to drop me off or to pick me up, little else. She was not coerced, through guilt manipulation, to come with me to mimic child-like behavior. Granted, I enjoy child-like behavior on occasion, but I don't like being pushed into it. As for my father--he never came to my school, and that was okay because it was understood that he was a man and not a child.

The brainwashing vice-grips my belief systems. When I was a little boy in the States (early 1960's) in-school brainwashing was accepted; corporeal punishment was accepted. We prayed in school every morning, said the "Pledge of Allegiance," and we were taught rudimentary ethics, which was useful. Then, by the late 60's, most of the in-class brainwashing had ceased at the behest of "sensitive parents." I remember being damned glad that all that useless crap had ceased. Even at that age, I knew it was a tad sinister. This brainwashing forced ideologies into our consciousness that made us think we could actually trust our own country, namely its government. We grew up only to learn that we couldn't trust our government--after the Kennedy assassination, after Vietnam. We know, because of our experience in the United States, that brainwashing such as this is designed to instill in the children an imprint of trust, and we know that they will surely be ripped off, and we don't want to see that happen. We don't want our children to go through the same emotional adjustments we had to go through in the States in order to become functional human beings in a tough world. It's a rip off, this kind of brainwashing.

On a more practical level, I think this event is just flat boring. You mentioned a lack of creativity; I agree.

As to whether my daughter enjoys this event--well, not really. She does see it as a "good duty," but she'd rather not participate; instead, she'd like to play with one of her friends in the park, doing what she and her friends like to do. (snip)

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