Preparing for Sports Festival (Undōkai)

September at a Japanese junior high school means one thing; preparation for the school’s sports festival. Or as it’s called in Japan, undōkai, うんどうかい。

Undōkai is a big deal here. This whole week is dedicated to rehearsing before the big festival day on Saturday. That means, from 8:00 AM till after 5:00 PM students are practicing various group oriented events, like a twenty person jump rope. Additionally, all the teachers work alongside the students to provide guidance and encouragement.

I spent some time this morning observing the protocol and customs of proper sports festival preparations. To begin with, keep in mind that the Japanese are extremely group oriented. After watching today’s practice, I can easily see how group emphasis can impact the development of Japanese students. Almost every event incorporates theme of group harmony in order to be successful. This is a lesson that students learn at an early age, which they incorporate into their everyday lives. The following documents my observations.

Stepping out of my empty office and into the dusty athletic grounds of Higashiura Junior High School provided me insight into just how serious Japan takes their sports festival. When I walked up to the track, every student was sitting in perfectly straight single file lines with their knees crunched up to their chest, and their arms clasped tightly around their legs as to avoid accidentally bumping the person in front of them with their foot. They’re so polite! Seeing them all lined up and sweating under the sun with their dusty butts on the dirt track showed me how disciplined middle schoolers can be; a stark contrast to what I remember my middle school to be like. This was definitely refreshing to witness.

Each student, boy and girl, was outfitted in the exact same fashion: all white tennis shoes, white mid-calf socks, green shorts, a white shirt with green trim around the sleeves and neck, and various baseball caps. When told where to go for rehearsal, each class is instructed individually by a teacher over a mega phone. Once addressed, that specific class jumps up simultaneously and runs to their designated area on the field. This is repeated two more times, as there are three grade levels. The oldest is the equivalent in age to high school freshman in the US.

Yellow tents line the far perimeter of the field. Here, the students store their water bottles in the shade of the tents covering. So far I haven’t seen any water breaks. Before I knew it, the instructor yelled across the field and marching music started blaring from the stereo. At once, the third year students began to march in place in their quadrant of the field. After ten seconds of marching in place a whistle blew and they proceeded to march in six lines. Soon, each line was pair with another forming three groups each marching around in their own circle.

After watching this quirkiness unfold, I realized something was missing; there was absolutely zero talking. All you could hear was the crunch of the thickly packed sand beneath the march of 300 students. Once they stopped circling around, a whistle blew and folk music began to play (of course, right?). The circles joined together and each boy was pair up with a girl. They began to enthusiastically dance to the accordion/clarinet music that was serenading throughout the mountains behind the school. Heals were tapping and dance partners were  being twirled. This was a stark difference to their march only moments earlier. Once the music stopped, all the students clapped their hand in appreciation for their partners graceful dance moves. Or maybe they were just clapping because it was over.

However, this clapping did not last long, as the students again sprinted to their designated positions and lined up heel-toe with their arms straightway extended to maintain proper distance from their classmate in front of them. Once this was done they simultaneously threw their arms down and sat. Everything was incredibly efficient and organized.
I was amazed how engaged each student was to the instructor. Each head remain fixed on the speaker and their was zero talking or fidgeting. At the close of the speech, the students responded with a resounding “hii!” (yes!), and jumped up to go right into attention with their thumbs lined on the seam of their shorts. Together they bowed and yelled “arigatou gozaimasu” (thank you). They then dispersed to lunch, except for the third year students.

These third year students remained sitting in the dust with the sun still beating down on them. While the first and second year students were off preparing for lunch, these 14 year-olds were lectured for ten minutes about their poor attitude during rehearsal, which I didn’t really notice. As the lunch bell echoed in the background, the third year students remained on the field and were reminded that since they were the oldest in the school, their actions carried a lot of weight. After all, the younger students look up to them. Gotta love that Japanese discipline!

After watching this intense rehearsal I made my way back inside and joined the other teachers for lunch in the break room. Oh yeah, every teacher eats the same exact school lunch, in the same break room, at the same time, together. As you can tell, Japan loves maintaining group harmony.

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