Yesterday was my elementary school’s sports festival. This is actually my second sports festival as an ALT, but I never blogged about my junior high school’s, which took place last October. I might post a picture or two from that just for fun though. Now, it is hard to describe what a sports festival is exactly in terms of American elementary school events because there is nothing that really comes close to it – at least not in my elementary school experience. The closest thing I can think of is Spirit Day in high school, but then again Japanese sports festivals are not a competition between the class years. Rather than try to explain everything in several paragraphs, I think it would be better if I just talk about what happened yesterday.
Things started off a little awkwardly as I arrived at the school and most of the teachers, including the principle, seemed very surprised to see me. I only go to the elementary school on Tuesdays to teach from Eigo Noto, so I was a little shocked when they were not expecting me to come in – especially since I kept saying all last week that I was excited to see their sports festival and run in the relay race. Anyway, by the time I had arrived (around 8 in the morning) all preparations were done and parents were already starting to arrive, so there was nothing that I could help with. I decided my time would be best spent mingling with the students and encouraging them. I tried to focus on the 6th graders as much as possible because this would be their last sports festival as an elementary school student. The entire school was divided up into two teams: white and red. Students wore their gym uniforms and cloth “ribbons” of their team’s color. The older students, who were the leaders of their team, wore a lot more ribbons tied around their chest. Students had also brought their chairs from their classroom down to the field where they would sit when they were not performing in an event. The school’s windows were also decorated with words of encouragement and with two giant paper panels of each team’s mascot: snowmen and cherry tomatoes.
The way things started was the students marched in. The first student to enter carried the school’s flag and was soon followed by another student holding the coveted “golden cup” which was given to the team that had the highest score by the end of the festival. Next came the “cheer teams” for each team. I do not mean cheerleaders, but they are just under their team’s “captain” who stood in the front of the line carrying a giant flag of their team’s color and wearing much longer ribbons. Each member of the “cheer team” also wore colored gloves. Next came each class year. A 6th grade student lead each group in a single file march in and carried a wood sign with the class year and what color team. The cutest to march in were the 1st graders because a few of them were still tripping over their feet, even after the countless marching practices. Once all students had marched around the track and into the center of the field, it was time for several speeches – something that is very customary at any Japanese event. Speeches were done by the school principle, vice principle, PTA members, and some students.
Finally, the first competition started: a singing contest. See, each team has their own “team song” so the teachers judge which team sang with the most spirit. To be perfectly honest, each team’s song is not that different from the other and they both sounded equally spirited to me. See for yourself.
Here is what they are saying:
赤 赤 赤―
ゴー ゴー ゴー
赤 赤 赤―
ゴー ゴー ゴー
燃えろよ 燃えろ 赤組
We are burning brightly
like the sun
Burning bright with hope,
we will fight with lots of power
Red red red
Go go go!
Red red red
Go go go!
Let’s burn let’s burn, Red Team
ゴー ゴー ゴー
白 白 白
ゴー ゴー ゴー
白 白 白
We are white lightening
Pushing forward as light’s arrows
The sound of snow thundering forth
With lots of energy we will fight
Go go go
White white white
Go go go
White white white
Circulating the earth
As lightening, White Team
After the singing, I am not sure which team officially won that contest, it was time for some light warm-up exercises and stretches. As a member of the teaching staff, it is expected that I also do these which was not a problem except for the fact that me and the school nurse were in a crowd of mothers who were recording their children. We had to say a few sumimasen’s to get ourselves enough room to do the stretches properly. The exercises took no more than five minutes and then it was finally (well, about 40 minutes after starting) time for the events to begin.
The first events were all just regular races, but each grade’s length was different. The 6th and 5th graders had to run 100 meters, 4th graders ran 80 meters, 3rd and 2nd graders ran 70 meters, and 1st graders ran 50 meters. These races are not optional. Everyone has to participate in every event – although I have never heard of a child not wanting to participate. Every school chants the same mantra with these types of events: even if it is clear that you are not going to win, keep doing your best until you have finished. There were some kids who were so slow that everyone had crossed the finish line well before they were even half way, but every single child ran their hardest until the end. I even ran in one of the races because one of the handicapped children I work with was too scared to run the entire thing alone, so I ran a little off to the side of her and cheered for her until the crossed the finish line. Each year is divided up into several heats, so there are only about 5 or 6 children running at each time. There is no knock outs or “final” match between the fastest runners, but rather at the end of each heat the students are given a card for what place they came in and their performance is calculated into their team’s score. So, maybe in the first heat a red player took first and a white player came in last, but in the next heat things were switched up. It keeps things more interesting and reminds the students that these are not individual events, but rather everything they do it for the benefit of their team. Very group oriented thinking, but I like the organization of things because it keeps the kids competitive, but not in a fashion that makes them hostile towards classmates who do not perform well.
After all the races were finished (all of them took about an hour), it was time for the 3rd and 4th graders to perform a Japanese traditional dance called Soran-bushi (ソーラン節). I performed this dance with my junior high school students at their sports festival and it is a real work out – especially on your knees. The song actually comes from Japanese fishermen in Hokkaido and the movements are based on the movements of pulling in fishing nets. The 3rd and 4th graders used
annoying clapper things in their dance.
Next, the 1st graders had a relay race where there were three cones they had to run around while carrying a small colored ring. When they had ran around each cone, they then ran around their class before handing the ring to the next person. The next event was one of the cutest things I have ever seen. When things were being set up, I had no idea what was going on, so I was really happy when I figured things out. On one end of the field were about 20 kindergarteners and 30 meters away from them stood some elderly people (I am not sure if they were grandparents or the Board of Education elite). What the kids had to do was run as fast as they could to the finish line where they would receive a special prize: a textbook? Now, these are not just any kindergarteners, these are kids who will be coming to this particular elementary school next year, so this event was kind of their initiation into this school. It was so cute and I kind of liked the symbolism of kids chasing after their education.
Next came the 5th grade’s relay race followed by another super cute event called “The Raccoon and Fox Tail Grab.” This event was for 2nd graders and they each wore an animal mask of either a raccoon or a fox. Tucked into the back of their shorts was a “tail” and when the signal was given, it was a free for all to see which team could steal the most tails from the other team. After parents were invited to participate in a tug-of-war challenge among themselves while the kids cheered on. After one side lost two times in a row, the teacher in charge of the event called me in to “help” the other team and told them that I was very strong because I played soccer. Yeah…playing soccer has certainly given me a lot of arm muscles….After us adults had our fun, the 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th graders also had their own tug-of-war competition. Then it was time for the 4th graders to have their relay race followed by an event that would never fly in America. The name translated roughly to “the people of Heaven and Earth” and is not nearly as symbolic as you might think. This event was for the 5th and 6th graders and went something like this: in groups of four, three people carry one person who is wearing a hat who then tries to steal other people’s hats.
Sound/look dangerous? I was holding my breath during the first match, but the kids loved it. My boyfriend has told me that this event gets downright brutal in junior high school and high school. Girls are not allowed to participate in it anymore and boys have to go shirtless. I’ll just leave your imagination up to what could possibly happen.
To finish up the morning, the entire school performed a dance called “Ai Daaida” (アイーダアイダ) which is from a Japanese television program called からだであそぼ (“Let’s Play Using out Bodies!”). The dance is actually kind of creepy if you watch the original one that is seen on TV, at least I thought it was kind of creepy the first time I saw it, but my kids were kind of cute. I had actually done the dance several times with the kids while they were practicing. After this, there was one more dance called “Don mind!” (which is supposed to mean “Don’t Mind” and is something Japanese people say all the time) that was for everyone to participate in. I decided to join one of the second year classes, and by join I mean several of the kids came and grabbed me to join them, and we danced together.
Then, it was time for lunch, which I ate with one of the 4th grade classes. After a 40 minute rest period, it was time to start the afternoon activities! First on the list was the cheer competition. This is usually my favorite part of the sports festivals (it was at my junior high school’s sports festival anyway). What happens is that each team is given a certain amount of time and they make a cheer about how wonderful their team is. Usually the older students write and choreograph the cheer and then teach it to the younger students.
They practice it like crazy until the day of the sports festival and the cheer is kept secret from each team.
I am pretty sure that the white team won the cheer contest this year, at least I was more amused by the white cheer than the red cheer, but both teams did a good job.
The next event was something that I had seen my host sister do when I was a JSP student and I thought was one of the more amusing things I had seen. The name is literally “A Bamboo Taking Story” and what happens is in the middle of the field about 20 long poles are lied down. Students, 3rd and 4th graders, sit on either end of the field and when the signal is given they run to the poles and try to pull as many of them as they can to their side. It’s like running tug-of-war. Sometimes there is one student trying to take on about five kids from the other team for a pole and they end up being dragged on the ground until that pole has crossed the team’s line. It is one of the funniest things I have ever seen.
Next, the 1st and 2nd graders did an adorable dance with really shinny pompoms. Then there was a ridiculous relay race for 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders. First, a 3rd grader had to crawl through several hurdle-made tunnels, then a 4th year student had to hop a certain distance with two balls between their legs, next a 5th grader had to carry four sand-filled family sized Coke bottles to the 6th grader who was then given an envelope with a teacher’s name in it. Once they found their teacher, they ran with that teacher to the finish line. It was ridiculous.
The next event is something that always amazes me at every sports festival. The older students perform things to show how “powerful” they are. These can be simple things like Yoga poses to eight person human pyramids and beyond. I could try to describe this event, but words are kind of escaping me at the moment, so I will just post some pictures for you to get the general idea.
The next event was for 1st graders and something that I have participated in several times. A teacher and several of the older students stand in the middle of a circle with a long pole that has a basket on the end of it. The 1st graders sit on the edges of the circle with beanbags in their hands. There is then a song that is played and an adorable little dance they do before they are given the chance to throw as many of the beanbags in the basket as possible. It is more difficult than it sounds, but kids get really good at it. I can just imagine them practicing at home all for the sake of their school’s sports festival.
After was another relay race done by the 3rd graders and then the 2nd years students had an event where they had to roll these GIANT inflatable bouncy balls around cones on the field. Then the 6th graders had their final relay race as elementary school students. Finally, the final event began.
This event is apparently very epic at this school. The giant inflatable bouncy balls are used again along with the entire field and the entire student body. Each teams ball is rolled into starting position along with three 6th graders who wait for the signal to be given. Meanwhile, the rest of the school makes a circle around the track in two lines so that there is a big enough gap for a giant inflatable bouncy ball to fit. When the signal is given, the giants balls are rolled to the front of the line where it then has to be passed all the way to the end with the 6th graders chasing after it.
The process is then repeated only with the ball being passed in the air until it reaches the end. The 6th graders then have to roll the ball to the center of the field where they pick it up and rest it on a platform.
It was pretty epic.
To finish things up, more speeches were done and the results were announced – victory to the red team. Then some more speeches and everything came to a closing with some stretching and final words from the principle. My junior high school’s sports festival was very similar, but events and a few other things were different. I will be sure to include a write-up when that comes around in October. Hopefully this painted a decent enough picture of what a Japanese sports festival entails. I wish I had had something like this when I was an elementary school kid. Someone want to try to get this sort of event started in America?