Summer is almost here, and with summer comes the inevitable outdoor sports. Baseball and soccer seasons are now in full swing here in Japan, and as usual school sports clubs are training almost every day in preparation for Taiku Taikai, or school sports festival.
This annual event is a highlight of every junior high school calendar across Japan. However, unlike the sports days I remember from my school days in Scotland, the Japanese system is quite different. In Japan, school sports day takes on far more of an artistic appearance. Rather than just sports contests, each year group will also take part in parades, dance displays and of course the obligatory “human pyramids”.
The display involved almost 300 students, working in perfect sync forming various shapes and geometric structures
Much like the graduation ceremony I spoke of in one of my previous posts, preparation is key, as the students spend several weeks before the event practicing for several hours almost every day. These coordinated displays do look spectacular on the day though, so all that preparation certainly pays off.
I recall one particularly well-coordinated display I witnessed last year at a sports day in Osaka city. The display involved almost 300 students, working in perfect sync forming various shapes and geometric structures, all in tune the powerful beat of traditional Taiko drums. It was a truly spectacular sight to behold.
Whilst artistry does seem to take precedent over competition, nonetheless, as the name suggests, this is still a sports tournament, and students will compete in several events. Most of these involve running, with variations such as relay and hurdles. Occasionally, some schools may also do a tug of war and similar such events. Competition is intense, especially amongst the third grade students, who often view this as a final opportunity to leave their sporting mark on their school before they graduate.
Indeed, sometimes this competition can go a bit too far. I recall a story from my early days as a teacher in Japan. It was back in 2007 that I first experienced a school sports day. This particular Junior high school decided to hold their sports day in the autumn, as some schools do, to avoid the stifling heat of summer. So, on that brisk October morning, the entirety of the student body was broken into two teams, the yellow team and the blue team. I was assigned to the yellow team. Unfortunately, the blue team proved too strong on the day and my yellows were routed.
As I said before, many of the students, especially those in their final year, take this day very seriously, so there were many teary eyes amongst my team at the end. Having coached both soccer and Tae Kwon Do during my student days, and having dabbled a bit in sports psychology I asked my JTE (Japanese Teacher of English) if he would translate, as I offered a few words of encouragement to my defeated students.
“Everyone,” I began. “We didn’t win today, but that is not the most important thing.
“What is important, is that you tried your best, and you gave 100%. I am proud of you, your teachers are proud of you,” then finally, casting my hand in a magnificent sweeping gesture towards the spectator gallery I concluded: “but most importantly, your families watching you today are very proud of you.”
I stood back, to drink in the adulation, expecting some smiles, perhaps even a little applause for my rousing and inspiring speech.
Instead, I got the exact opposite.
The students cried even more, their broken hearts seemingly crushed still further by my words. I looked at my JTE, very confused. Then he dropped the bombshell.
“Liam Sensei, maybe you don’t understand Japanese sports culture. Their PE teacher told them that they must win or they would bring shame and disgrace on themselves and their families.”
And that, dear readers, was the last time I tried to impersonate a sports psychologist. Not since Ricky Gervais’ David Brent character’s doomed stint as a motivational speaker on the UK version of “The Office” has anyone crashed and burned quite so spectacularly in the name of trying to boost morale.
That one bizarre experience aside, the school sports day is a wonderful event that unites the entire school. I would encourage all ALTs to try and take part in any way that you can, even if you’re not a particularly sporty individual. Your students and your colleagues will appreciate you all the more for it, and you will feel like you truly belong in your school community.