Undokai - Sports Festival in Japan

In Japan, the start of the second semester in September brings with it the promise and excitement of the school's annual undokai, or sports festival. All across the country, primary and secondary schools prepare to put on an event that involves not only the students and teachers, but parents and members of the community as well. While each festival is localized within the confines of an individual school, undokai in general are an integral part of modern Japanese culture.

Many students look forward to the festival, and even those who don't begrudgingly admit to appreciating this time of year as it means large chunks of school time is devoted to practice and, in turn, not spent in classes. For the two to three weeks from the beginning of the term leading up to the festival, in place of classes, several afternoons are spent learning coordinated gymnastics, practicing dances, and making team banners.

Although an event of this magnitude does not exist within the American school system, perhaps the best way to describe it is that it's like field day, deluxe. Students are split into several teams and compete in races, contests, and relays, which the audience is sometimes involved in as well. Every student regardless of ability will participate in all of the events that their grade level is competing in, cheered on by the team they are representing.

However, it isn't all competition, and perhaps the most important and anticipated part of the event is when all of the teams are working together to put on a spectacle that would make any American soccer mom gasp. I'm talking about kumitaiso, which roughly translates to group gymnastics. Students hold solo and group acrobatic poses of increasing difficulty and complexity culminating in a human pyramid of truly impressive proportions. Depending on the size of the school, the final pyramid can be as high as five or more layers of children. 

Because I work in multiple schools, and because the schools in my area do their best to stagger their undokai, I was able to attend two of my middle schools'. One of them was more traditional in that it was just the middle school students doing normal undokai activities, including a hilariously absurd relay involving wheelbarrows and silly hats. 

The other was a joint festival with the neighboring elementary school. Because the younger children were also involved, it was less physically intense than the other, but no less impressive. Instead of the whole time being taken up by middle schoolers racing against each other, the events were split up and dotted with performances and races by the elementary students as well. To their merit - the inclusion of the elementary students in no way detracted from the wow-factor of it all. Actually, the fact that they were able to put on just as tight of a performance probably made it more impressive than the middle schoolers alone would have been!

Despite all the shows of athletic ability, what really stood out the most was the discipline and mental fortitude that pulling off an event to this quality required. I'm sure you all remember the big, mandatory school events that you had to participate in once upon a time. And I'm sure you remember how much of a drag they could be and how some students (definitely not you though, right?) seemed to do their best to look as dead and uninterested as possible. Well, there was absolutely none of that. Instead, the students clearly put their whole hearts into putting on the best event that they could.

Case in point: The second undokai that I attended was scheduled for the day that a typhoon was supposed to hit the area. The teachers nervously watched the weather report all week and in the end decided not to cancel the event, opting instead to cut it short in the case of inclement weather. Unsurprisingly, it began to pour during the afternoon while the middle schoolers were having their cheer competition. What was surprising, however, was that not one of the students even flinched. They continued their routine, raising their voices as not to be drowned out by the sound of the increasingly loud rainfall. 

If you ever have the opportunity to see an undokai, I highly recommend it! Be forewarned though, you may be called on to participate!