Monday, September 25, 2006


My school held its annual undokai (sports day) this weekend. Undokai is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.

It’s a huge event and everyone takes it very seriously. Maybe a little too seriously. I saw two students almost come to blows during practice last week. One boy started screaming and lunging at another boy who he felt wasn’t trying hard enough. Two teachers had to jump in and pull them apart before the punches started flying. I also saw a few girls crying during dance practice because they couldn’t get the steps right.

These kids have been under an incredible amount of pressure during the past two months. This is no touchy-feely “let’s just try our best and have fun” sports day. The only thing that matters here is winning. It matters so much that some of these kids even spent their summer vacation at school, practicing for sports day.

I’m not sure what to think about this emphasis on perfection. It doesn’t seem healthy. But, at the same time, all of their hard work makes for some incredible performances. It’s inspiring to see these kids compete at such a high level but I can’t help but feel there’s a darker undercurrent at play. They seem to be driven not by joy but by a fear of failure. I’m not saying it’s good or bad. It’s just different.

Whether I agree with it or not, all of their hard work paid off. It was an impressive day from start to finish. The students were divided into four teams (red, white, blue and yellow) and competed in all of the events as a group. There were no individual stars.

There were all sorts of different events, ranging from the ordinary (100-metre sprint, three-legged race, tug of war) to the bizarre (parents whipping the students around on a giant bamboo pole).

One of the most entertaining events was what can only be described as the "tire grab." A bunch of old car tires were placed in the middle of the field. Two teams lined up behind white lines on opposite sides of the field. When the whistle blew, each team ran to the middle of the field and tried to grab as many tires as they could, by any means possible. Punching, hitting, kicking, tackling and stealing were all fair game.

I would like to say that I just sat back and watched. But I was forced to participate. Not in the tire grab. Worse. In the 800-metre run. For some reason, girls are not allowed to run the 800 but they made an exception for me. Which means I had to race against the boys, including the male gym teachers.

Luckily, I’m a good sport. So I did it. I ran the 800 in front of all the students, all of their parents and pretty much the entire town. I’m happy to report that I did not come in dead last. I came in second last. I passed a nerdy kid who was dying in the last 100 metres.

Here’s a photo of me running the 800. This is either at the start of the race or near the end when everyone lapped me. Yes, a bunch of 13-year-old boys and one chain-smoking gym teacher lapped me. After almost two months in Japan, public humiliation no longer fazes me.

Some of the sports were judged, such as dancing and cheering. These were the main events and they were the ones that the students worked night and day to perfect. The girls danced.

And the boys did this. I have no idea what it’s called.

Despite the pressure, most of the kids seemed to be having fun. They were screaming and cheering for their teams and were happy to pose for pictures. The kids in the black suits and white gloves are the captains of the cheering squads.

It was a fun day but I’m sort of glad it’s over. I haven’t been teaching much during the past two weeks because most of my time at school has been spent sitting around watching the students practice. I think the kids are secretly relieved it’s over too.

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