May 29, 2011 – All elementary and junior high schools in Japan have a special Sports Day of outdoor athletic games called a Taiikukai (体育会). I was invited to come to the Taiikukai at Bikuni Elementary School on May 29th. I didn’t know exactly what to expect, except that the teachers really wanted me to come, and even participate in the games somehow. It was scheduled for a Sunday morning, when I usually prefer to be unconscious, but since they asked so nicely, I decided to come and check it out.
I was awoken by my alarm at 8:00am and went straight to the window to see how the weather looked. Yamazaki-san had told me that if it was raining that the Taiikukai would be canceled or postponed, and it had been raining all night, so it looked pretty bleak for an outdoor sporting event. In that case, I wasn’t going to be in a big hurry to be down to the Elementary school by 9:00.
Luckily, I didn’t just assume that the Taiikukai would be postponed, because when I arrived at Bikuni Elementary School, the scene was busy with families setting up shop right beside the track. They laid out picnic blankets and set up the kind of portable canopies that you see at soccer tournaments. I was honestly kind of shocked that I saw so many people, as I didn’t think Shakotan even had that many residents, but clearly the event was on. The students were gathered on the other side of the track, sporting caps that were either red or white, which as I learned, was an important part of the Taiikukai.
In the Taiikukai, students compete in various athletic games, while being cheered on by their family. Some games are individual events, like the 60m dash. Other games, like the tug of war, involve most or all of the students, divided into two teams, and that’s where the red and white hats come in. With each event throughout the day, the score is recorded for red versus white, so that by the end of the competition, about half of the students can feel a bonus boost of glory for being on the winning side.
When the Taiikukai began, the weather was overcast, with low-hanging clouds and a chill sea breeze that made me wish that I had worn more layers. The tree-covered mountains directly behind the school yard were visible at their base, but upwards they disappeared into the mountain fog. I milled around behind the families’ base camps, trying to find a good vantage point for the proceedings, without having to stand on ground that was too saturated by the previous night’s rain. Along the way, I was greeted by many parents and children alike; the former greeting me in Japanese and the later in the English we had worked on in class. (One eighth grade girl in particular always responds to “How are you?” with “I’m sleepy”.)
Eventually I found was seemed like a pretty ideal spot to stand, and if not, it was at least at a point where lots of people who walk by me. Hopefully, someone would tell me if there was something I was supposed to do. Almost immediately, Yamazaki-san came by. His family had settled not far from where I was standing. We chatted a moment about my haircut (I had finally found where I could get a cheap haircut after several days of fruitlessly searching), and then he directed me to a large canopy at the end of the field which had tables and chairs under it. I was seated in a seat labeled as number three, between the head of the Board of Education and the Principal of the Junior High.
As the Taiikukai got underway, I was simultaneously surprised by two things. One surprise was the how the students marched out in an extremely military fashion. While they were clearly more organized and well-behaved than your could ever expect American grade school kids to act, the overwhelming military vibe with which the opening ceremony was imbued was a bit unnerving for me. I could only imagine an old WWII veteran watching the proceeding with great distain. Luckily, the general military nature of Japanese organization wasn’t brand new to me.
The kids marched out by grade order, moving in perfect rhythm to the music that was being pumped through an outdoor PA system. That was the second thing that surprised me; the song that they marched out to was an instrumental version of Abba’s “Dancing Queen”. Now that I think about it, it’s kind of hard to feel intimidated by the military style of kids marching when they’re doing so to an Abba song. Another tune I recognized was a J-Pop hit by AKB48 called “Heavy Rotation”.
I have been really impressed with Japan’s general utilization of music, which seems pretty much omnipresent, and the use of music at the Taiikukai was actually quite brilliant. Throughout the day, music would be played at every opportunity; while things were being set up for the next activity, after an activity concluded, to signify breaking for lunch, etc. Music would be even played during events, which combined with the sound of families cheering, created a motivational akin to what you get when you watch an inspiring sports movie, like “The Mighty Ducks” or “The Sandlot”. I felt a little jealous that I didn’t have this kind of thing when I was a kid.
The day began with all the students lining up, in strict military fashion with flags and marching and everything, in front of the Principal, Vice Principal, and a couple of other people. A few quick speeches were given, the school song was sung, and a flag was ceremoniously presented to the school Principal. After that, the students marched back to far side of the track and the day’s activities got underway.
First, the students ran the 60m dash, five at a time, and faculty kept track of who came in first, second, third, and so forth. A very nice lady came around the tables at which I was seated with cups of coffee for the assembled panel. I appreciated this very much, because the cool breeze was cutting right through my track jacket, and I was starting to freeze. It was then explained to me that I was going to be handing out certificates to the students. (It was probably explained to me many times, but I finally understood at this point.) My “number three” seat meant that I was handing out certificates of merit to the students that came in third place.
The kids seemed pretty excited to see me, even though most of the certificates didn’t had furigana on them so I wasn’t able to call them by their names. (Furigana is the phonetic pronunciation of kanji, usually written in small print above or below the characters to help people read kanji that they don’t know.) One adorable little first grader who always wants me to pick him up was particularly happy to see me, and kept breaking ranks to walk up to my table and say, “Hello!” Then he would stare at me with wide-eyed fascination. One teacher basically had to drag him to his next destination.
The first team game that the students played involved throwing plastic balls into basket. Each team had their own basket and they were atop a pole, about 10 feet up. The plastic balls were color-coded for each team (white for white, red for red) and were about the size of a baseball. Both teams went simultaneously and had a set amount of time to get as many balls into the basket as possible.
Another game that the children played was a race that involved carrying boxes of various sizes on a stretcher, around obstacles. I’m sure the game was supposed to encourage team work, as the two students needed to work together to complete the course as fast as possible. It was hilarious to watch, and actually reminded of helping a friend move from one apartment to another.
The nice lady came round the tables again, this time with tea. Again, I was very grateful because I was shivering. The head of the Board of Education asked me if I was cold and I said that I was indeed. He disappeared for a minute and then returned with a windbreaker for me to where. It was an extremely nice gesture that I appreciated much more than I had words to express. Eventually, Yamazaki-san came to get me, as it was time for me to actually participate in a game.
The first game I was asked to take part in was a basically an egg-and-spoon race in which I was competing with the PTA. To make the game easier for the elderly, the spoon was more of large ladle and the egg was a hollow plastic ball, the kind you find in a ball pit at an indoor playground. People raced in waves, and I won my wave fairly easily. Everyone was given a prize afterwards. I think that there were slightly different prizes for the winners, but in any case, all the prizes were things like a roll of aluminum foil, dishwashing soap, and paper towels. (I must be getting old because I thought that these were great prizes, they’re very useful.)
Next I participated in the adults’ competition of tug of war, which in Japan has the more literal name of “rope pull” (綱引き). We did two rounds, both of which my team won, but I didn’t feel like I actually contributed that much to the victory. I was surprised that everyone on my side pulled the rope with a sharp jerking motion, all in the same rhythm. That must be why we won, strategy team work instead of brute force. Again, I received a bag of goodies.
I also participated in a relay race called the zaruhiki (ざる引き). Instead of passing a baton like a normal relay, racers drag a slightly concave mesh disk (a sieve made of bamboo) by a rope… and there’s a basketball on top of it. As it turns out, it’s actually pretty hard to tow the disk at a higher speed without the basketball rolling off, especially when rounding the corners of the track. I was the anchor for my team, going last. When it came to my turn, the other team had a slight lead, so I tried my best to catch up. Unfortunately the basketball rolled off the zaru-thingy twice, which was quite a setback. I did manage to get a good pace going in the homestretch and the crowd cheered louder and louder as I came closer and closer to pulling off an upset. I came very close to overtaking my opponent, but I ended up being just a second behind as he crossed the finish line. Still, the race must have been pretty entertaining because everyone cheered like crazy.
Around noon, the Taiikukai broke for lunch. This was probably the most amazing part of the day, as the Japanese really know how to picnic! By this point, the weather had completely cleared and sun was shining affectionately down on one and all. The families all opened up their bento boxes to reveal a hidden feast of Japanese culinary deliciousness. Yamazaki-san, in his endless generosity, was kind enough to invite me to have lunch with his family. This was great not only because the food was amazing, but also because the grandparents were there, so I got to meet more of the Yamazaki family.
The food was spectacular. Onigiri, inarizushi, shrimp tempura, barbeque chicken drumsticks, teriyaki meatballs, tamagoyaki, steamed asparagus, baby tomatoes, fruit salad, watermelon slices, etc. Yamazaki encouraged me to eat-eat-eat, but the food was just so good that I knew I’d keep eating until I felt ill, so I restrained my gluttony. I did my best to converse with Grandpa, although my Japanese just wasn’t good enough to say much at all. I was able to understand when he listed the English speaking places that he had visited, with included Hawaii, L.A., the Grand Canyon, and New Zealand.
Since the weather had gotten so nice, I went from being overly cold to being fairly hot, and potentially getting sunburned. As I tend to do, I took refuge under my track jacket, wearing it on my head like a robe. As lunch was wrapping up, the festivities got back underway with a traditional Soran dance (ソーラン) performed by the students. They had donned happi coats and headbands, and had in hand naruko (wooden clappers). The PA system pumped out a more upbeat, techno version of the Soran than what I was accustomed to hearing and the kids impressed with a well-rehearsed dance routine.
After the dance, it was back to athletic games. One of the funnier races actually involved candy. Running down the track, the kids had to get their body through a hula-hoop, crawl underneath a balance beam, then without using their hands, find a piece of candy in a baking tin that was full of white powder (powder sugar, I believe), and finally crawl under a net on the ground before running to the finish line. This was hilarious to watch because every kid came away with ghostly face completely covered in white powder. (Some kids, I noticed, neglected to brush the powder for rest of the taiikukai.)
The final event of the day was called the “rental” race. Students picked up cards on the track, and each card had written on it something that the student needed to find and bring to the goal to finish. Items on the card included a ball, a jacket, a shoe, a bento box, a family member, and even specific people, by name. I had been warned in advance that one of the cards would have my name on it, so some student would be running up to me and that I should run with them to the finish line. Ironically, Yamazaki’s daughter Saya ended up getting my card. She knew right where to find me because I was still sitting with her grandparents, and when she ran up shouting “Lucas-sensei” we bolted to the goal. I think she got first place in her group for that one.
The Taiikukai wrapped up around 3:00, with some closing ceremonies that were similar to the way the day had begun. I helped Yamazaki-san carry his picnicking stuff back to his van, said ‘thank you’ and ‘goodbye’ to the principal, and headed home. It ended up being quite the cultural experience and I had the vicious sunburn to prove it.
[**I neglected to bring my camera to this event, so all pictures shown are from other websites. In a related note, I wouldn’t recommend doing a Google image search for “taiikukai”. Apparently it’s also the name of pornographic publication or something.]