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Sports Day: The Final First

This past Saturday was one of the biggest days of any Japanese school-year: the “Undokai” (literally “exercise meeting”) which is usually referred to as “Field Day” or “Sports Day” in English. Every school has their own particular ways of doing it, but the basic idea is the same: all of the students and most of the teachers and staff are involved in various athletic competitions usually revolving around a track. There are the basic 100-200 meter races, a handful of relay-races, and a quite a few weird and wacky races to make it more fun. There are some familiar events like tug-of-war, and many distinctively Japanese events like teams holding up bamboo poles and trying to knock the other team’s pole down first.

As I sit down to write this I realize just how tedious a task attempting to describe it all in detail would be. I suppose just an account of the highlights and my thoughts surrounding the whole thing will suffice.

Fortunately, I don’t need to record it all in words because Sports Day is the one day of the school-year that Interac policy allows its teachers to take pictures at school, and I took advantage of that to an extreme degree, snapping well over two hundred photos and capturing about a dozen videos. When it comes to the third-graders these will be the only visual record I’ll have to remember them by, and if I get moved to a different school next year the same will go for the other students as well.

Of course, there are still strict rules regarding students’ privacy, so it’s obviously forbidden to post any pictures on a public website. I would have refrained from doing so anyway just out of my own common sense, but it’s nice to have them for myself. If you want to see them you’ll just have to remember to ask me to show them to you the next time you see me in person. Having looked through them all on Sunday I can easily say that these are my favorite pictures I’ve ever taken. I mean, it’s nice to have shots of me in front of the Colosseum or the Golden Temple and that sort of thing, but most of my tourist-photos are of things you can see online anyway. These are pictures unique to my life, pictures of my wonderful students having a wonderful time on one of the most memorable days of their childhood. In addition to all the crazy pictures of them involved in crazy athletic events, I’ve also got a whole bunch in which they’re just smiling for my camera and flashing the obligatory V-for-victory sign. Priceless.

Not that I’m going to do anything about it, but I just can’t help but point out how allowing teachers to take pictures of students one day out of the year kind of negates the entire point of banning us from doing it the other 364. If the concern is that some teachers are going to misuse images of their students (and may those who do so burn in Hell for all eternity), opening up that door even for one day means that the door is open period, and you might as well just let photos be taken but maintain the ban on putting them online. I’m just resentful of all the pressure I felt to get at least one shot of pretty much every single student all in one day. If I couldn’t get one on Saturday, there’d be no other chance and their faces would be doomed to the inevitable memory-hazification like last year’s third-graders.

Luckily, a handful of last year’s third-graders came to the event, and I was able to get some pictures with them as well. They were some of my favorite students too, so that was really nice, and I also enjoyed practicing my much-improved Japanese on them. My vocabulary may not have advanced particularly far in the last three months, but my confidence in my ability to communicate has gone through what I feel are some pretty big breakthroughs.

All in all it was an excellent day that I enjoyed thoroughly, though it came after one of the most boring weeks I’ve ever had to endure at school. The entire week was preparation for the event, so there were no lessons and because I wasn’t involved in the Sports Day planning I had literally nothing to do until Friday when I finally had this week’s lessons to plan. I would just wander around the field watching the students practice, occasionally getting some interaction but mostly being ignored because the students were all wrapped up in whatever they were doing. Occasionally I’d come inside and do whatever kind of busy-work I could come up with to occupy myself, which wasn’t much. The days stretched on forever and I somehow felt more exhausted going home after doing nothing than I typically do after a full day of teaching.

The monotony of practice was broken a little on Thursday when the entire morning consisted of a full dress-rehearsal of the entire event, so I got to see what Sports Day itself was going to look like and to know which events would take place when. I was supposed to take part in the first racing-event, but because nobody had given me clear instructions I ended up not being in the right place for it. Luckily, before the actual event, several students and teachers came up to explain to me over and over again what I was supposed to do, and while it didn’t actually fully click until I was actually doing it, I at least managed to pull it off on Saturday.

By Friday, the day designated for working out the kinks of the dress-rehearsal, even the students were sick and tired of it. I barely got a nod of acknowledgment for any of them that day, they were so zombified.

But when Saturday morning finally rolled around it was a completely different story. The students were excited that the big day was finally here, and as they made their way to the field in advance of the opening ceremony I got more greetings than I sometimes get in a whole week. They were totally loose and outgoing and friendly throughout the whole day, which is more than half of what made it so enjoyable.

The other half had to do with the events themselves, most of which were interesting and funny if not downright hilarious. The race I was a part of was a 200-meter dash for the third-grade girls with a twist. They’d run about 50 meters and pick up a card which had been left in their lane. The card would have an object and the name of a teacher. They’d have to grab the object from a blue tarp half-way through the race (things like softballs, plastic bags, baseball gloves, and other assorted randomness) and take the hand of one of the teachers to race the rest of the way. I was on one of the cards for the first race and one of the cards for the fifth (there were about fifteen altogether). The first girl was too slow in finding the right object so we came in last. The second girl did okay and got to me fourth, but I ran so fast with her that we surpassed the pair in front of us and placed third.

The only other thing I was involved in (and believe me, I would have loved to have been involved in much more) was the PTA-relay after lunch. A team of teachers and staff (including the vice principal who went first and the principal who went last) went up against five teams of PTA members in a race to kick a soccer ball around a cone 40-meters away, and back to pass the ball to the next person. I was so pumped up at that point that while the vice-principle took his time and dribbled the ball like a real soccer player, I just launched it down the field and sprinted after it to wild cheers from students. I brought our team from about fourth place to second place in one wild dash, having kicked the ball only three times throughout. Other teachers did well too, and by the time the principal was on his way back for the final stretch, we were so far ahead that he paused to do some tricks with the soccer ball, which of course the students loved. I was happy to have at least one first-place victory of the day.

As for the students, the entire school was divided between two teams, one sporting red head-bands and one wearing white. Half the classes from each grade were red and the other half were white, and each event gave each class more chances to rack up points for their entire school-wide team.

Before the lunch-break there were two heavily-practiced events not worth any points at all, which I found out were the first time this school has over done them. All the girls got together for one massive coordinated dance-session to a Japanese pop song called “Rising Sun” by EXILE, which was fun to watch but naturally got old after the eighteenth time. The boys had the difficult (and somewhat dangerous) task of making different formations with their bodies, culminating in five human pyramids, the center one being a giant pyramid of every single third-grade boy in the school. Watching them practice that got boring fast enough as well, but on the day of the event it was pretty impressive for the crowd, and was the source of some top-notch photos.

The second-most-insane event (the first being just too hard to even attempt to describe) was also the most heavily practiced. It was called a “Mukade” or “centipede-run”. Every single class divided up between boys and girls and tied their legs together around the ankles. In a long line with their legs tied together and hands on each other’s shoulders they’d have to run in perfect synchronization for about 300 meters around the track against all the other classes in their grade. This is not only challenging but potentially quite painful, as any break in synchronization would result in the entire team collapsing like dominoes. They practiced this over and over and over again, trying to work out the perfect leg-stroke length and timing. Most teams even stayed after school to practice more. Every team must have collapsed six dozen times over the course of the week, but on the day of the race half the teams had it down perfectly. Of the half that did collapse during the races, they only did once or twice and all made it past the finishing line with a respectable time. (Incidentally, the only major injury of the week took place during tug-of-war practice on Thursday—there were no injuries on Saturday). By pure coincidence, it turned out that classes on the red team tended to do much better at this than those on the white team.

There was some issue regarding which team I was on, as the event-organizers had forgotten to assign me one. On the second day of practice a group of students came up to me and asked me which team I was on, two from the white team and one from the red. I told them I didn’t know, and each girl was imploring me to be on their team, but I couldn’t choose in front of them because it would hurt at least one of their feelings. They went up to O-sensei, one of the main guys in charge of the event, and asked him what team I was on. He asked me which team I preferred but I told him I couldn’t choose, so he wrote down the colors and covered them with his hands. I pointed to his left hand, which put me on the red team, but a few minutes later when I was back at the teacher’s room, M-sensei, the other main guy in charge, told me he’d decided I was on the white team, leaving it up to me again. I ultimately went with the white team because it seemed that most of my favorite students were on that team, although there were of course many many dozens of exceptions and I wished I didn’t have to pick a team at all.

It turned out that the white team ended up barely beating the red team on rehearsal day, but the red team won a decisive victory on the day of the event itself (thanks in large part to their dominance in the mukade-run). When the results were announced, the red team went wild and the white team was pretty silent, but thankfully none of them seemed too upset by it and they were good sports in applauding their opponents’ victory. After the closing ceremony when I was helping the students take everything down and pack everything up, no one seemed to care who had won and they were all just happy at having had a good time. Some of the third-grade girls were periodically breaking into tears (this being their final Junior High School Sports Day and having to confront the harsh realities of linear-time) which had me choking up a little, but a few minutes later they’d be smiling and laughing again so it wasn’t nearly as somber as it could have been. There was a lot more crying at the Speech Contest and Chorus Contest.

Once everything was cleaned up and all the parents had gone home, the students went back to their homerooms for the final twenty minutes of the school-day and I went home to shower and change before coming back and riding with T-sensei to the post-Sports-Day enkai. There’s no need to go into details about that as it was pretty much the same as all the other enkais I’ve described, the major difference being this time PTA members were invited as well. Only about six of them came though, and most sat at the same table. Once I got buzzed enough I felt inclined to go up and introduce myself to them and ask each of them who their kids were. They invited me to join them at their table and asked me a bunch of questions about myself, and I impressed both them and myself by being able to explain all kinds of things in Japanese that I never thought I’d have been able to explain, like my entire employment history since college. When I said goodbye to them I think I heard one of them comment how he’d never known an ALT to speak so much Japanese before.

There was a karaoke after-party this time too, and I got off to a good start by singing “Hey Jude” but replacing “Jude” with the abbreviated name of our school (which happens to rhyme nicely). I also managed to have a nice conversation with the new vice-principal who is a really serious and intimidating guy most of the time, more than any other administrator I’ve known so far, and while I’ve always gotten the feeling he doesn’t like me I thought I made a decent impression.

Unfortunately, I may have screwed things up a little by getting too drunk. It’s really hard when you’re drinking out of a tiny glass that everyone keeps refilling when it’s barely even half-empty. There’s no way to keep track of how much beer you’re actually drinking, and by the time you go too far it’s too late. I know it’s Japanese culture to not hold anything from an enkai against anyone but I can’t help but feel a little embarrassed by how sloppy I think I was. Hopefully I’m just being overly concerned.

The last thing I did was get up on the microphone when the party was ending and implore everyone to sing the school song. They’ve done that at all the other enkais and one of the ways I kept myself busy this week was to memorize the damn thing, which was no easy task let me tell you. K-sensei helped me understand the meaning of the lyrics but it’s still very hard to memorize an entire two-verse song in a foreign language in a matter of a couple of days. I went through it in my head literally hundreds of times, but a good 80% of the time I’d space out on one line or another. Without a firm grasp of the meanings of the individual lines, it’s hard to remember that “minori yuta kana” comes after “tou shio ni” or that “chikara wo awase” comes after “mann yo ni”.

But I kept at it and was able to sing along for the most part during the rehearsal and at the closing ceremony, but nobody noticed or gave me any credit for it, so I was dying to show off at the enkai and this just happened to be the first time we didn’t sing it. But I got them to sing it and I actually sang through the microphone, and while I still ended up tripping over a few lines I did it pretty well over all and was told so afterwards. Of course then I had to go and sing it through half the car-ride back to my place with the principal sitting next to me, and while I don’t think he was bothered by it at all it’s still kind of embarrassing.

But when all is said and done, it was a pretty great day overall. Whatever minor regrets I might have about this or that don’t amount to very much in the end, and the pictures alone are worth more to me that I can say.

There is a touch of sadness though, that this is the last big school event in Japan I’ll get to experience for the first time. From now on every Speech Contest, Chorus Contest, Graduation Ceremony, Spring Concert, and Sports Day will be something I’ve already been through. Of course there’s no avoiding that—it’s pretty much the nature of everything you do in life—but it’s still worth noting.

In any case, the beauty of the way I’ve chosen to live my life is that eventually I will move to another country and everything will be fresh and new again. It’s just that right now I love my life-situation so much I don’t even want to think about it changing.

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