First and foremost, undokai means sports day. A school’s sports day is a major event not just for the students, but for the parents who come to watch. Really, it’s more like a performance. It’s a bit like the Macabbiah games (if you know what that is) we had in summer camp. But with a lot more marching. So much more marching. My school has been practicing for this day for months. Students practice the cheers and dances they will perform at the event after school every day (probably on weekends too). Students even actually practice the different events. They run the races just like they would during the actual sports day and scores are recorded even though it’s just “practice.”
Here’s what happened on the actual day:
First was the opening ceremony. This involved the students doing a lot of marching in perfect formation in their teams. Students are divided into five different teams: red, yellow, green, blue, and white. In their teams, students are further grouped by gender and by year. Each team is lead by one captain and two of what I’m dubbing as assistant captains. To keep in step with each other, everyone chants “ich ni” over and over. “Ich, ni” (prounonced eech knee) is the shortened version of “ichi, ni” which means “one, two.” This is all happening while the band plays Washington’s Post over and over.
Feel free to play the following while reading the next few paragraphs to get yourself in the proper mindset:
After all the teams have made a complete circuit around the “field” (it’s a dirt pitch, so they just call it “the ground,”) there are speeches. The vice principal makes a speech, the principal makes a speech, the PTA president (who was one of the biggest and whitest Japanese women I have seen yet) makes a speech, the student president makes a speech, everybody makes a speech. Also, I feel I should point out that it seems no matter where I go, there will always be that two-camera-wielding dad who manages to get in the way of every shot I’m trying to take. There were two of these men, but I’m pretty sure one of them was actually the official photographer.
By this point a couple of the teachers were calling me a sort of nickname/slang that means “camera girl.” But, hey, if I wasn’t participating in most of the events, I might as well entertain myself by taking pictures. As a result, I have a lot of pictures I would love to share, but I don’t feel comfortable sharing. I need to go through and blur the students’ faces, but I’m too lazy to do more than a few right now. I should be able to post some more later. But for now, unfortunately I can only put up the blurry ones.
After the marching, everyone warmed up by doing something called Radio Exercises. They’re called this because they’re broadcasted on the radio every morning. I’ll let the video I found on Youtube do the rest of the explaining.
Personally, I prefer this version done by one of my favorite Japanese music groups:
After we were all warmed up, the teams performed some traditional Japanese cheering, called Oendan. Another example from YouTube:
After the dances came the relays. I ran a short part of it for the teachers’ team and my everything hurt afterwards. Still, I really wish I had been able to run a longer leg of the race. It was fun and everyone keeps telling me how fast I was. (Whether or not this is actually true, it definitely stokes my ego.) There were some more races and a few more relays after that.
Then it was time for folk dancing. Thankfully, I had practiced with the students a few times so when I was told to go join them, I could do so without making a complete fool of myself. It was basically just line dancing…but in a circle. All the same principles applied so it wasn’t too hard. Not to mention that the whole dance was set to “Turkey in the Straw.” However, I did run into problems when one of the teachers tried to ask me about American culture while we were dancing. He asked in Japanese and my brain essentially shorted out while trying to remember the dance steps and respond in Japanese at the same time.
With the dances done, it was time for lunch. I ordered the bento with most of the other teachers. I’ve ordered with them a few times before and I’m never 100% sure what everything is. I make it a rule to try everything (as long as I still have rice left in case what I’m trying is disgusting), so I’m slowly learning what Japanese food I like and don’t like. I know I don’t like the omelet things they serve. They’re sweet and there is something inherently wrong to me about a sweet block of egg. I’ve tried it a few times and my taste buds just refuse to cooperate.
After lunch there were a few more races and tug of war. The tug of war was definitely my favorite event for one very important reason: the head karate teacher. The head karate teacher rarely comes to karate practice, so I don’t talk to him much, and (going by where his desk is in the office) he is a rather important figure in the school. For the tug of war, he would stand on the rope to make sure that the students couldn’t start pulling the rope early.
As soon as the starting gun was fired, the students would pull the rope taut. Resulting in this:
He did this for almost every round and every time it was just as entertaining. I think the white team ended up winning this event overall.
The students did a few more dances and cheers. Occasionally the teachers got involved too, which was hilarious and provided many amusing photo opportunities.
Last was the multi-leg race. It’s like a three-legged race, but with about 15 people per team. The third years did a really good job. Not a single person fell and they all made pretty good time. The first and second years, though…well, there were a lot of face plants.
Finally, it was time for the closing ceremony. There were a few different winners. I don’t know what the categories were, but one team won a special flag that they will march with at next year’s sports day. Another team won a plaque. There were a few more speeches and the day was done. All that was left was to tear down all the tents and clean up.
Next post: what happened after undokai!