I am by no means fluent in Japanese, but I’m pretty sure undoukai translates to “silly acrobatics at a serious event.” Well, it’s either that or “athletic meet” (according to jisho.org). I prefer my definition, though, because it embodies the ever-so-present dichotomy between humor and serious ritual in Japan.
How to describe the undoukai…? If I described a popular event in which teams compete against one another, in often absurd activities, at what appears to be the expense of each contender’s dignity, you might think I was referring to an episode of Wild & Crazy Kids. If I mention this event was in Japan, you might think I was referring to “Takeshi’s Castle,” which has a cult following in America as “MXC.”
“MXC” was satirically dubbed in English and, although it is in fact a comedy/entertainment show, it engenders a genuine sense of teamwork and the “try your best” attitude common in the Japanese workplace. The contenders make up teams, each representing individual workplaces, and boy do these dudes represent. Even amidst promisingly painful obstacles, embarrassing costumes, and difficult odds, these ambitious sarariman give a fist pump or two and bound off into certain discomfort…what heart!
In an almost perfect parallel, these students understand the undoukai competition is serious. The ceremony and display for the audience are also serious. The wacky games and races are funny, and sometimes impressive. For around a month, these students sweat over undoukai practice, one rehearsal being about the equivalent of a marathon for each kid. The events vary from wacky golf to unicycle races to early 20th century American dance.
But, there is no shame or embarrassment in trying your best for your team. Try and imagine this atmosphere during a “Real World Road Rules Challenge.” It just wouldn’t happen. Us Americans like to ridicule, bicker, and point fingers.
Team spirit! Students (from both teams) huddle up before the big event
So let’s delve into my experience. The undoukai starts early. If you want a good blanket placement you better beat out the masses of parents and grandparents that lay out living room-sized sitting tarps and easy chairs in the front row. In perfect formation, the marching students are led by a super genki/serious flag bearer. Remember, most schools practice at least a month in advance, sometimes during class time. The school is split into red and white teams, or as I prefer to call them, reddo and howaito. Their colors are represented by their hachimaki [“headbands”] and the scoreboard lets us know who’s winning up until the last, nail-biting 15 minutes.
The little soldiers march out in perfect formation, bow in unison, and hand over a flag which seems to represent their interval on the field. This flag is partnered with the school flag until the very end and is knocked over its small tripod stand through most of the event. Just like anything else athletic, in my neck of the Japanese woods, we kick it off with a little “Dream Step” stretching. This is the part where doing 100 four second, quasi-yoga stretches to a song worse than elevator music equates to a good warm-up, even for the full-on sprints and the climb-up-the-20-foot-pole activity. I don’t know if “Dream Step” is just a small island phenomenon, but I usually find myself dream-stepping away from the annoying song every time I hear it. I’m a foreigner; I have special privileges.
Students bowing in unison at the undoukai opening ceremony
Next, they kick off the acrobatic show. This includes all of the students doing hand stands, sitting on their friends’ shoulders, and stacking up into a scary, standing human pyramid four people tall (the last of which resulted in a serious hospital visit during practice). At about this point you start to notice the lady teachers running around with their ridiculously long-brimmed, Little BoPeep hats and black sun protection arm sleeves, snapping a million pictures for the nostalgic end-of-the-year slideshows all set to sappy Japanese songs. Also, most moms are filming on their own video cameras (I just saw a Sony HandyCam commercial capitalizing on the Undoukai.)
The students have every possible relay race. There is a four student relay, with each team representing one of the sports clubs. There are relay races with the parents. There is the hula hoop skipping race, and a race run while standing on teammates’ backs. There are unicycle races and a race where three boys hold one exercise ball squashed between their backs while running. By the way, I’ve never understood the prevalence of the unicycle in Japan (as if its importance approaches that of basketball or soccer). What caused the country to introduce unicycle education on a large scale level in 1992 (web-japan.org)? I bet it has something to do with the interaction with foreign armies. That’s how I suspect Japan garnered a lot of its weirdness.
One student races up a bamboo pole held by his teammates
Between events, speakers blare with tunes from Sum 41, Huey Lewis and the News (circa “Back to the Future”), “Footloose,” and some Sega-esque music which I’m sure is from some ancient anime. Of course, there was J-Pop too, but I wasn’t exactly surprised the third time hearing Greeeen, Arashi or Mr. Children. Can you believe some of the parents and teachers listen to this stuff, too?
Generally, America enjoys grass on their sports fields. If you have never been to a Japanese school ground, you might be surprised to know that Japan enjoys only baseball dirt, to the point that they weed out grass during their cleaning time. Needless to say, the windy day proved for few nice diamond-dust storms aimed at the audience. Also, during the undoukai, a student is not allowed to clean dirt off their clothes after they fall. Maybe it shows how hard they have worked. Saigo made ganbarimashou! “Let’s try our best to the end!” The students try hard for their team, but in the end the team points are about as important as those on the Whose Line Is It Anyway show.
Wind stirring up dust on the school grounds during an event
Now, everyone takes a luxurious bento lunch break. I snacked on a few konbini sandwiches while trying not to notice the seven course, home-prepared bento pulled out of expensive, polished oak boxes stacked three and four layers high.
After a few “Banzai!” shouts from the group leaders, the bigger team competitions signal the last few events. Whole groups run to the middle and fight over a huge bamboo pole in a no-holds-barred, wrestling tug-of-war. Kids hang on to the pole, their teammates, and their opponents’ legs. Then, at last, we arrive at the early-American hoedown. These young Japanese students, not quite comfortable in their changing bodies, are made to dance with a member of the opposite sex. I’m guessing this might be the first time dancing such an archaic dance, let alone being forced to dance at all in front of everyone they know. Two giant circles of students revolve around a circle of the opposite sex and do a rigid step to the sounds of “Do Your Ears Hang Low” and what might as well have been the Tetris Song A or something out of “Fiddler on the Roof.” Basically, there’s a lot of awkward interaction.
Students playing tug-of-war during undoukai
The scores are revealed with a few rolls on a snare drum (provided by yours truly) and everyone cheers for everyone else. Then the junior high school soldiers line up again in formation and listen to a few words by the principal, vice principal, and the town mayor. The solemn atmosphere may lead you to think everyone is being scolded for poor performance, but mainly it’s the opposite. There’s more procession with the flag – this time giving it back to the students. There is one final bow (or many, depending on the mood), the students help clean up, and everyone goes home exhausted.
Nowadays, there are usually only school undoukai, especially in cities, but in the inaka the “town undoukai” still lives on. It’s very fun (for me) to see the struggle between old and new when some of the teachers and parents are heard sighing “taigi” [“I’m tired”] and “mendoukusai” (burdensome) when faced with another town activity that in cities only interested parties are held accountable for. This might be the same reason that, even though undoukai events are usually changed and brainstormed from year to year, this year was a repeat of last year’s performance. Some teachers complained, but apparently not enough to warrant change. I’ve heard stories and seen pictures of hilarious events, so I was honestly a little disappointed with the lack of variety.
Even though they’re taigi, school and community events like the undoukai teach students the same qualities admired by corporate Japan. In Japanese Girls and Women, Alice Bacon explains how undoukai, which used to be unique to the upper classes of Japan, helped set women on the right track. “In these and many other ways the nobility of new Japan are being fitted for the new part that they have to play in the world” (Bacon, 1902). She attests to the notion that individuality and creativity have been weeded out by such group activities. Similarly, students today have to be groomed for the roles they might soon take on.
Expectations are key here. For the undoukai participants’, practice and effort leads to victory, and for employees, patience and money saving lead to success (Yanagida, Keio University lecture). Japanese businesses like to function as a very tight-knit family. They work long hours together; they stretch together; and they even take yearly sight-seeing trips together, all of which sounds strangely similar to school life. It’s this corresponding regiment that helps transition graduates into the workforce, and it’s this curious culture that keeps us foreigners on the balls of our feet.
Photo credits: All photos taken by Dan Moeller and used with the permission of the school whose students are featured in the photos.