I have to admit, in the pantheon of official Japanese holidays, this has always been one of my least favorites. Why? No reason other than that for three straight years, I was subjected to the incessant loudspeakers of the elementary school behind my Okinawa home as they practiced for their Sports Day undokai (more on that later). I would have been okay if this practice had lasted several hours, a few days, a week even. But no. The Japanese are nothing if not thorough in their preparation, so rehearsal for Sports Day lasted at least a month. Try getting an infant to nap when Flight of the Bumblebee is blaring outside the window. Yup. No love lost for this holiday.
I now live in a quieter neighborhood (for the most part :)) and Sports Day means a day that my husband doesn’t have to go to work (hello, three-day weekend escape!). Next year, however, it will mean my daughter’s mandatory participation at her nursery school’s undokai so I thought I’d do a bit of digging to see what this holiday is all about.
Most people living in Japan associate the national Sports Day (or Taiiku no Hi in Japanese) with an undokai, an athletic gathering or sporting event. However, Japan has been promoting undokai in educational institutions long before the holiday became a legal one. October 10th was the date of the first official Sports Day, stemming from the date of the opening ceremonies of the Tokyo Olympic Games held in 1964. (Since 2000, Sports Day is observed on the 2nd Monday of October so that it always ties into a weekend.) The first undokai, however, was organized nearly a century and a half ago at the Imperial Naval College. It was inspired by the request of a visiting British Royal Naval admiral to host a European-style sporting event at the college. Some of the main events at this 1874 gathering included a three-legged race, a race where water buckets were toted on heads and even a pig-chase.
From here, Sports Day spread throughout the university level and eventually filtered on down to primary education, encouraged by an education minister in the Meiji era (1868-1912) who made gymnastics a compulsory part of schooling. Undokai were once held on the grounds of nearby shrines or civic halls, but today they are almost exclusively held on a school’s own grounds. I attended an undokai with my daughter last year and can equate it to the Fun Day we used to hold at my elementary school. There are a few introductory speeches and the singing of the national anthem, but after that it’s just a showcase of races, dances and sports-related games or challenges. Families are invited and its common for everyone to bring a bento and picnic in the schoolyard for lunch.
Sports Day has even spread to the corporate culture, with new start-ups offering Sports Day packages to large firms and their employees. A school-sponsored Sports Day undokai is a mandatory event for all students – I wonder if the CEO gets to opt out or not? 🙂