In kindergartens, elementary schools and junior high schools in Japan, Sports Festival or Undokai(運動会) in Japanese, is usually held on Saturdays or Sundays in spring (May-June) or autumn (September-October). Students and teachers do a lot of preparation for this school-based community-wide event and spend several weeks practicing to make it a successful and fun day for everyone.
On this important day, parents wake up early to prepare bentos (lunch boxes) and head off together with their kids to the school. Children are usually given a role during this event (for example, ouendan 応援団, which means cheering team) and are split into groups, usually given a color in order to divide the teams.
Carrying the event program, their water bottle (or suito 水筒), and a headband that represents their team, the children, dressed up in their gym clothes, get to the school early in the morning to start the exciting event.
An important part of the Sports Festival is…
Not only do the students and teachers do their best to make the sports festival successful, but the parents also try hard to help turn the event into an unforgettable day for all parties. A day or two before the event, parents, especially the fathers, help set up tents on the school grounds. Tents are usually set up according to the areas of the community.
People in the same area do work together to set up and break up their tents. On the day of the event, mothers, and sometimes fathers, do their best to prepare packed lunch or obento（お弁当）as mentioned above. These packed lunches are always packed very nicely, look amazing and are the best reward for their children that did their best in the activities.
Students are divided into teams and colors are used to distinguish each group. Most times, in order to divide them, colours such as red, blue, green and yellow are used. If there are four sections per grade level, each section will belong to a particular color. For smaller schools in the countryside, there are only two teams and students are divided accordingly. Some parents and other people in the community have the possibility to also join them.
It is during the “undokai” that families and neighbours can gather together and witness their kids performing and competing in a variety of activities and fun games. There are individual and also team events.
For team events, there is the cheering contest, which the students had practiced for weeks. Smaller kids like the first graders sometimes do games such as the ball toss game, in which balls are thrown into a basket on a high pole. There is also the “oodama hakobi” or the rolling of a giant ball and many other fun and creative games.
Of course, there is also the all-time favorite, the tug of war. For individual events, there is the relay race where every student participates. Other racing games include a series of sack race, high jump, and running with a racket and a tennis ball placed on it. One of the most looked forward events is the “Kumitaisou” hat is basically a coordinated group gymnastics with teams who form shapes as pyramids and other astonishing constructions. However, the Kimitaisou is more for older kids rather than the first graders.
During the event, the word “ganbare”(頑張れ！) pronounced as “gambare” is all over the air. Family members, classmates, teachers and also visitors shout this word many times to cheer the performers. “Ganbare” is the imperative form of “ganbaru”, which means, in this case, to do one’s best and never give up. “Gambareeeeee! Gambareeeeee!”
In “undokai”, there is a spirit of equality, where all students can join and are given the chance to show and test their skills. I admire this system because, in some countries, only the best in the class can join an event and compete with other representatives from other classes. Winners will compete against winners and only the best will be recognised.
However, not in Japan. Not a single student is being left out.
Hard work, sweat, team work, equality and lots of fun memories. These are the words that describe the sports festival in Japan and makes it a big part of each and every Japanese student’s life.