School Life in Japan: Sports Day!

The whole school marches out behind their flags!
The whole school marches out behind their flags!

Summer break is over, the homework is turned in and 2nd term has started. You know what this means?

You got it! Sports Day!

The late summer air filled with students cheering and laughing, teachers screaming encouragement (because no one here is competitive at all, no, absolutely not!) and parents scrambling to get the best photo spot to practice their action shots (it’s a nation of photographers after all).

And best of all? I get to forgo work clothes and the indoors in favor of yoga pants, a t-shirt and the fresh air! Ultimate comfort!

Known as 運動会 (undokai) in elementary school and 体育祭 (taiikusai) in Jr. High, Sports Day is a valued school tradition in Japan, usually held on a Saturday in early September for JHS and one in October for ES.

Pretty scoreboards!
Pretty scoreboards!

But it’s not limited to that one day. No! That’s crazy talk! The students practice the week (or two or three or…) before the actual event for a couple hours to all day (depends how seriously the current principal takes it), beginning as soon as school lets back in. A teacher once told me,

“Sports Day is for the parents. The practice is for the students.”

And how true it is. I talked to parents who’d come to school at 4 or 5am to save the absolute perfect spot to pitch their tent or beach umbrella, set up their folding chairs and lay out the items in their cooler. The whole extended family joins in and the pop-ups go maybe 4 to 5 deep all the way around the grounds!

Cannons (yes, they shoot off actual cannons!) go off at 6am at the 4 Jr. High’s in the area (two of them too far off to hear) to signal the start of set-up and practice. The actual events start a little after 9, with the opening ceremony taking about an hour starting at ~8am  (speeches, lots and lots of speeches!).

You get distance shots due to strict privacy rules in Japan!
You get distance shots due to strict privacy rules in Japan!

The general feeling of the day is one of community. Kids eat lunch with their families, I see all my elementary school kids cheering for their older brothers and sisters and a lot of old teachers come to visit (including my JTE from last year! Yay!) We come to watch our kids do ridiculous sports and cheer for them, no matter how athletic, and be proud of them. It’s also one of my few interactions with parents, always an interesting experience!

The games are truly truly ridiculous but look like great fun! Absolutely none of them would be allowed in the U.S. for fear of lawsuits after injuries, and yes, the nurses tent is well-used throughout the day, but the kids love every second! And maybe that’s another reason I love this day so much.

Here are some of the crazy things these kids get up to!

  • Girl Fight– Yes, it’s called that. Two sides of girls, in the center are a few tires and they fight to get them to their teams’ side. Dragging and being dragged the whole way!
Girl Fight!
Girl Fight!
  • Centipede– The class ties their legs together and competes in a many-legged race against the others! Sometimes they have obstacles and one of the times is a relay, bringing costume items back to their homeroom teachers to dress in, makeup and all! This year we had a baseball bat wielding yankee, Anna from Frozen, a geisha (male) and a viking! Priceless!
  • Pole Climb– The 3rd year boys all get barefoot and in teams. Each team gets a pole. A bunch of them hold the pole vertically and ground it, others make a staircase with their bodies and the smallest gets to run, climb over them all, climb up the rest of the pole and get the flag at the top! Awesome!
  • Headband Grabbing– The 2nd year girls are in teams of 3. Two on the ground with the third on their shoulders they run around while the one being carried tries to steal other girls’ headbands while keeping hers safe! It gets scary out there!
  • Dancing and “Folk” Dancing– What’s more awkward than a rotating-partner couples dance at a Jr. High set to the tune from “Do Your Ears Hang Low?”? Adding in a few teachers (including me!) to even out the boy/girl unbalance! (Those boys got real respectful, real fast!) On the bright side each grade level of girls and boys get to perform their own dance. Boys are usually traditional Japanese while girls go more J-Pop music video.
  • Tug of War and Giant Jump Rope- We all know these games. The whole class participates at a time here– those are some long ropes! (And some strong jump rope turners!) The classes keep competing for the rest of the month to get the highest jump rope score.
  • 100m and 1500m races and relays– As a free-entry you get teachers, me, and a bunch of students all racing in circles around the track. Cheering for these events gets super pumped! My school looooooves track and field!!
  • PTA and Teacher event– Our turn to make fools of ourselves! With 2 teams of teachers and 8 teams of parents our relay with a soccer ball and strange obstacles got super heated and had our kids in stitches! I had no idea how competitive we all were, but dude. Game on!

My role in the event (past the 2 above events) is largely social. The school likes me to go around and bond with the students, talk to the parents and smile at the Board members.  The kids are at their most relaxed and it’s a day to not be picky about grammar and just have fun with them! I’ve got so many clowns around me, it’s seriously entertaining!  Of course some events need help setting up and taking down so I run out for that and do the occasional odd job, usually involving a stopwatch.

The day ends with more speeches, a lot of awards (some that come with a crown of leaves, true Olympian style) and tears. It’s the last Sports Day of the 3rd years school lives and a lot of them will cry. Mix that in with all the students who didn’t win and well… you have been warned!

Sports Day is such an important part of school life here! Does your country have Sports Day or Field Day? Tell me what it’s like or if you’ve ever been to one here in Japan!

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2 thoughts on “School Life in Japan: Sports Day!”

  • Hey! I had my first sports day at a JHS recently. Really interesting to read about your experience. It sounds like your school had more fun events than we did! They really do take sports day seriously here. How do you find it compares to sports day back home? I found there was a huge emphasis on teamwork and inclusion here (compared to the UK), which meant last place was usually cheered as much as first place. Look forward to your next post!

    • My schools in California never had a Sports Day but I know of other people in the US who do. In Arizona we had “Fun Runs” where we’d usually be raising money for something based on how far we could go! How does the UK day work? Thanks so much for reading!

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