If it’s September it must be sports day practice. Every September, at the start of the school year’s second semester, my schools move into sports day mode. These few weeks of daily practice culminate in the big sports day, with all the parents coming out to see their kids in all their athletic glory. This happens at all my schools, from kindergarten on up, and I imagine it happens at the high schools too.
Although we tend to translate it as “sports day,” each school has its own name for it, and it can include words like “physical education” and “exercise.” Really, it has little to do with sports. There are no basketball matches, or volleyball. There’s no baseball or tennis or even sumo. No, the focus is on fun events, like three-legged races and tug of war. And yet this requires weeks of practice.
When I first came to Japan to teach English, I couldn’t fathom why this day—which they do every year without fail and which tends to always have the same events—required such intense practice. As a new ALT (assistant language teacher), I arrived expecting to teach but instead had to sit on the sidelines for weeks while my classes were cancelled in favor of what looked to me like unnecessary practice. Why the hell would anyone need to practice pulling on a rope?
OK, I got why the dance routine, human pyramid and entrance ceremony required some run-throughs, but bowing? These kids bow a hundred times a day. It seemed overkill to do rehearsals for all the guest speakers, bowing in time to theirs and going from standing at attention to at ease.
After three years, though, I finally get it. Yesterday one of the teachers asked me if we had sports day in America. I have been asked this question many times but this time she followed it up with, “So you don’t have a big event like this for the parents?” That’s the key to all the obsessive bowing and rope pulling and marching. They’re not practicing for sports day; they’re practicing for their parents and family members who will come to watch.
Practicing the three-legged race seems like it would suck all the fun out of it. But if this is a performance, then it all makes sense. Executing something difficult like the three-legged race displays the honed physical dexterity of the participants for those watching. Likewise synchronous bowing and marching.
From kindergarten on up, this is an event for the parents. It’s Japan’s version of the school play, except performed outside and with relays and human pyramids and folk dancing. Learning how to work as a group and execute motions perfectly in-sync really is that important to the culture here.
Of course, sports day is also about fun and having a good time. And, judging by the faces of the participants, this they certainly do.