When Sports Day is Art

K’s teachers at the hoikuen, or public Japanese preschool ask me, “What is “Undoukai” in English?” They want the word, but they also mean, “What is your equivalent called?” And then, I really have nothing.


Sure, American elementary schools have Field Day, but Field Day is not practiced-for in class like Undoukai. It does not stretch from preschool to high school, where students perform Olympic-style events, serious gymnastics, or choreographed dances. Mine didn’t, anyway! Survey most Americans, and you’ll find they remember kickball, foursquare, definitely a rough tug-of-war, and definitely definitely, a popsicle or ice cream post-sweaty games. Parents did not come. We certainly did not practice much ahead of time.

Undoukai in Japan is the heartbeat of the culture. Yesterday, when I looked on at the red and white teams, at my daughter’s teacher, Nishi-Sensei, playing the keyboard for an elaborate dance (for 4 year olds), I felt such pride.


The eldest kids, Tsuki Gumi, or Moon Class, performed a number that could make the iciest, most crotchety man grin and beam ear to ear. Their movements, combined with the happy music, made “It’s a Small World” beyond outdated. They made magic, taking individual jump ropes and turning them into a veritable Maypole. They giggled freely while snapping their jump ropes around. They spun with their friends. They showed us childhood in its simplest, most breathtaking form.

My heart swelled and if the routine had gone on any longer, I may have welled up.

While I thought that the grandparents cheering on their little ruffians performed these events themselves as little ones, I was wrong. Sports Day has only been a national past time for 49 years. Actually, Sports & Fitness Day is a national day here in Japan, started in 1965, nearly two years after the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo. Researching and stumbling upon vintage ads and Japanese text is so exciting, really.

Here is an awesome book by the incredible Shogo Oketani, titled J-Boys: Kazuo’s World, Tokyo, 1965. This is a rich, fun-to-read book for anyone wanting to know Japanese life in 1965, through the eyes of a very sweet, carefully-layered character. Tokyo is rapidly changing; the Beatles are booming, hamburgers are introduced as Tokyo fare, & the main character feels the effects of WW2. I reflect on this book & the vintage photos inside when I look out at the Undoukai blacktop.


Get on this books’ Facebook page, learn more about the author, and order the book. Every angle of Japanese culture is more than beautiful when seen through the eyes of a poet or young boy.

Much of the poetry of Japan is found in routine. Art forms unfold like drops of rain, and Sports Day is no different. Every Undoukai commences with a kind of stretching routine. Taiso, morning exercise, is pumped through radio waves for the nation every morning and has been part of the culture for much longer, beginning in the 1920s. Much of the country joins in, doing the same routine. This is a fit country. I think of the Chinese with morning Tai Chi in the park. How gorgeous. No, really–everyone does it. I routinely see train workers all lined up on a nearby train overpass, participating. Here is a sample of perhaps the most popular program, Radio Taiso.

From http://www.tofugu.com/'s excellent blog

From http://www.tofugu.com’s excellent site

Or perhaps you remember the show, Heroes, when Tokyoite, Hiromoto, was up on the roof of the building where he works, doing daily Taiso with the rest of the salarymen?

Isaac, my husband, recently discovered a group of seniors doing Taiso in the park. On the children’s playground. Many were on the absolute top of the two, or maybe three-story castle, moving to the “ich, ni, san”… What fun, right?

Here are some more pictures from the day. Oh, Jude’s class was not asked to take-part this year, which is a shame. K’s first Undoukai entailed a tamago, or egg sushi costume. Hysterical and great for photographing. Oh well. There is his next year and the year after that and until graduation. I can hold-out.



We learned, or remembered, that our girl is not the fastest runner in the world. She came in last of four, behind the most laid-back boy the world has known. Our girl, the sweet, but not-so-Miss Marion Jones, jogged in behind him, all smiles. Through her race, it was like she was at a cocktail party–pleased with her company and looking back and forth at them to make sure they, too, we’re enjoying themselves.


When I congratulated her on the race, she scoffed. What was I, insane? “A race?? It was just running“. Clearly.

The parent-child relay was perfect. This is the paper that was hanging in class the week before to guide parents. There were more involved charts and lists, too. These preschool teachers could coach college football with all their plays.





These is the beanbag toss, jump ropes, the teacher dance. Alumna were even brought back for a race. The grandparents were even given chairs this year. Many turned them down, with all the Taiso they do. Many of these babas and jijis were too busy running after their kinder, some of whom were crying. There were consolations, omedetous/congratulations and lots of cheering.



All in all, another blast.


image So what do you think? What kind of field day did you have, growing up? 

One thought on “When Sports Day is Art

  1. I have wonderful memories of Undokai from my childhood and I saw your photos with nostalgia. What wonderful memories your kids are making! I love the new look you have on your blog, too!!

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