My First Elementary School Undokai

“What? I have to go to work on a Saturday!?! Arrrghhhh! Mendokusai, ne?” Those were my initial thoughts when I heard I was going to have to be at my school at 8:00 am on a mid-September, Saturday morning. It is rare indeed that I ever have to go to work on a Saturday morning. This particular Saturday was an exception, it was one of the three, major, special occasions that happen at a Japanese elementary school…The Undokai (運動会 or うんどうかい).

The 運動会 (うんどうかい or undokai) translates to mean athletic meet in English. But I have heard staff members refer to it as different things in English: sports day, the sports ceremony, and even the sports festival. It is a big deal at both elementary and middle schools (I’m not sure if high schools do it or not). For nearly three weeks now, maybe slightly longer, I have seen teachers and students practicing to get ready for the undokai. Students and teachers would stand out in some pretty serious heat and run through the ceremony start to finish. By the time the teachers and students reached the final days of practice, I must say the ceremony looked pretty smooth.

I had heard about the undokai prior to teaching at my elementary school and figured that the sports festival would be the same thing as field day back in the United States.

Did you have field day when you were in elementary school? I definitely remember mine. I wasn’t the fastest kid, not by a longshot, but I remember wanting to see the fastest kids in our grade go at it every year. Field Day was a way to find out who the best athletes in your class were. Of course once you got to high school, these contests of physical ability were reserved for the sports clubs: track & field, wrestling, football, basketballl and the like.

A Japanese undokai definitely isn’t like any field day I had ever been to. The Japanese undokai varied from the American for a number of reasons. First, the undokai was much more formal than the American field day. At about 8:30 am, students were dressed in their exercise uniforms and reversible white/red hats, standing at attention. There were several short speeches from PTA members and from the principal. Even the student-led warmup session was formal.

Second, the Japanese undokai was for all grades together, first through sixth. They had the races down to a science. Races happened in rapid succession and the scores for first through sixth place were tallied to figure out whether the red team or white team would be victorious. I was on the White Team this year.

Another difference was that the undokai seemed a lot more team oriented than what I remember at my field day. Of course, we had teams in the U.S., too, but at the Japanese undokai for some reason, no kids seemed to be singled out as being incredibly fast, or slow, it was truly big team effort. The older kids would say “ganbatte” to younger ones, telling them to give it their all. This was the first time I had ever seen a 1st grade through sixth grade relay. 1st graders would run a lap, passing their baton to a 2nd grader on their team, who would then run a lap and pass to a 3rd grader, and so on and so on, until the race got to the last leg, the sixth graders.

Yet another difference was how much responsibility the kids had for making the day go smoothly. The kids had to determine the rankings at the end of each race. This was pretty neat. There were six numbered flags: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 (representing the rankings 1st place through 6th place). Each numbered flag was a different color. A fifth or sixth grader, wearing a jersey corresponding to a flag, was seated right next to the track. Whenever a race would finish, it was one student’s job was to grab every first place winner who crossed the finish line and seat them behind the 1st place flag. The same was done for 2nd through 6th place. This allowed another student to go and collect names for the red team and white team point tally. It may sound a little confusing, but the kids were so organized. It was cool to see the kids really being in charge of their undokai, setting up for races, doing microphone announcements, leading warmups and school song, etc.. Of course the teachers had to put in a lot of work for students to be able to lead as well as they did, but it was the ultimate student teacher joint effort.

The final difference was the level of parent involvement. The PTA members came the night before to help setup. On the day of the event, there were LOADS of parents at this thing, video cameras ready to go. I honestly think there was at least one family member there for every child. Field Day back home may have had a few parent volunteers there, but not like this. Part of the reason though, is that the Japanese undokai happened on a Saturday, and most parents and relatives were off. Getting the average American child to go to school on a Saturday…hmm? Is it possible? Even if only for field day?

There were races that included parents and students, parents vs parents, teachers and parents, there was tug of war, an elementary school marching band display, special costumes…it was great. At the end of the day, I was totally beat, but it was a day well spent.

See you next time,

Donald Ash

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  • Great post and the photo looks like an Undokai down my way in Okinawa. I shoot the camera at all of them (3 so far, this year; more to go) but, I always enjoy the elementary schools most.

    • Donald Ash

      You’re in Okinawa? Man, I really want to visit there when I have a chance. It’s good to know that the undokai magic is all over Japan. Thanks for posting, Mike.

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