Japanology Plus - School Sports Days [1080p]


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Once a year, students across Japan take part in their schools' sports day. Participants range from kindergarteners participating for the first time to high school seniors determined to leave their mark. This isn't just a big day for the children, but for their parents too. Sports day often means getting up at 4 am to make lunch, then leaving the house before dawn to get the best viewing spot. For some, it's a reason to invest in a high-end camera or to buy picnic tables and camping chairs. The venue itself undergoes a miraculous transformation; what might be a ruggedly functional field for most of the year begins to resemble an athletics stadium, with huge tents, flags, and track markings. There's no doubt that this is one of the biggest days of the year for everyone in the community, and it's our theme on this edition of Japanology Plus.

The history of sports days began in the late 19th century, when Japan had frequent contact with foreign naval advisors. A British officer named Archibald Douglas stationed in Tsukiji, Tokyo introduced soccer to Japan, and it's thought that the concept of sports days also came from him. As mentioned in the show, Tokyo Imperial University held a sports day in 1887, catching the eye of the Minister for Education at the time. His name was Mori Arinori, a Kagoshima native who had studied in the UK and served as the Japanese ambassador to the US before returning to Japan and enacting sweeping changes to the education system. He promoted sports days as a way of improving children's health.

You might be thinking: what happens if it rains? Well, there's a solution for that. Children make teru teru bozu, white dolls that look like ghosts. They also resemble a monk with a cleanly-shaven scalp, which makes sense considering that the name "teru teru bozu" literally means "shiny bald-headed monk." These simple constructions, made from paper or cloth, are hung near a window in the hope of warding off rain. Traditionally, if the doll is successful, its head is doused with sake and then placed in a river to wash away. Alternatively, if you'd like to pray for rain, you can hang your teru teru bozu upside-down to get the opposite effect.

Assuming the weather is dry, a school sports day begins with an opening ceremony. They often include speeches, appearances by mascots, and cheerleading performances. The assembled crowd may take part in radio calisthenics, which was the subject of a recent Japanology Plus edition.

Then the day begins in earnest. The children wear colored headbands or hats to show their team identity. Parents and other onlookers cheer as the students compete in traditional events like tamaire or kibasen. As we see in the program, tamaire is an event where the kids compete to throw as many balls as possible into a raised basket, and
kibasen is a recreation of a cavalry battle, with the role of the horses played by groups of children. Other entertaining events include human pyramid performances and a "centipede race," which is like a three-legged race with many, many more legs.

The most important contest of the day is usually saved until last: racing. There are individual and relay categories, both of which get the crowd roaring. The runners use up every ounce of energy in an attempt to cross the finish line first.

Once the events have all concluded, the winning team is announced. There's elation for the victors and disappointment for the losers. This might seem like the end of the day, but there's actually one more thing to be done. It's quite common for both participants and spectators to stay behind to help tidy up. The equipment, chairs, tents, speakers, and decorations must be packed away and safely stored for use the next year. It's clear at moments like this that the most important part of sports day is the sense of community it inspires among all those who are even loosely connected to the school or neighborhood.

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