Why the Sports Day is the Best and Worst Introduction to the Japanese School System
It’s pretty staggering to think how different my two years of Sports Day experiences have been. Although I didn’t even talk about it last year, I can definitely say something had changed, and I viewed the festival with a much different lens this year than I did the first time.
The Sports Day is, in short, a school-wide competition: Relay Races, Tug of War, a complicated game of chicken that involves hats and many other events are held for the kids to duke it out. Sometimes it’s different years competing, other times it’s different classes within a grade competing against each other. Luckily, even the teachers are able to join in sometimes! But in the end it’s all for the love of athletics, competition and team building.
Well, kind of.
The Worst of Times
I feel as always I need to add the disclaimer that any/most of the problems I have with the Japanese school system occurs at my bigger school. Most of the things I talk about very rarely happen at my other school, which only has 55 students, but I think any large institution will bring out the worst of things at times. Having said that, my first Sports Day, while still fun, almost seemed not worth it for what the kids had to go through.
While the school does take a full week to practice and prepare for the event, the week is full of orders, yelling and other boot camp-like instructions. This really comes out when the students practice the opening and closing ceremonies, where marching and pre-written speeches are practiced. Teachers follow the students around the track and watch them line up as they march, and lord forbid if any of them screw it up. It was not uncommon to watch entire classes being held back over the practice was “over,” only to be lectured about how terrible their marching was, ordered to practice it again, and then told to pick up rocks in the field as punishment.
It was during this week of practice I heard the “Japanese teacher yelling” voice for the first time, although I had gotten a taste of it during my first semester-opening ceremony. I kept asking myself if the kids really wanted to do the Sports Day at all if they had to go through all the ridicule to get there. Plenty of them seemed tired of the charade by the day before the actual event.
I’m not trying to say here that yelling or “firmly instructing” a child in any capacity is bad. Nor am I saying that those students acting out of line or clearly not participating shouldn’t at least be dealt with in some form. However, I can say without a doubt it’s been during that week specifically I have heard the some of the nastiest language in my life. Sure, one could argue a part of that is just my own interpretation, but there’s a certain tone that comes out of those teachers that still makes me uneasy every time I hear it. And that week is full of that sort of tone.
Despite all of this, I still found the kids, almost surprisingly, had an absolute blast once the day came.
The Best of Times
A teacher asked me “Do they have anything like this in America?” and my answer, almost instantaneously, was “No way!” I can only remember of one time I ever had anything like a “sports day,” and that was in middle school. All of the planning, coordination and cooperation seems almost unobtainable with American students, at least in the way it’s done here and with the schools I attended.
What I found was the kids here had a tremendous amount of pride in their teams, and they all seemed to come out of the event a little bit closer to each other. Sure, when I was in school, we had “homeroom teams,” and by high school we were “connected” by our graduation year, but I never felt as close to those outside my classes. Of course I had my pocket of friends and other people here and there I would talk with, but there were plenty of other people within my class year I never talked to once. But with these sports days, everyone participated and, most importantly, participated together, with every sport during the event being team focused. Sure, maybe the feeling of the “team” or “group” lessens as time goes on, but the general school year here seems to have other events that keep encouraging the strength of the school as a whole. I can’t say there was ever anything really like that when I went to school.
For as much criticism as the group mentality structure gets (and rightfully so at times), when events like this work it’s refreshing to see. It’s cool to see entire classes cheering for one student (even if they’re not the most athletic), ecstatically waving flags, celebrating together when they win and seeing students across multiple years working together. I just can’t say I’ve seen anything like it.
But the day is also beneficial in connecting to with the school as a whole. While I did help out a little during my first year, it was in a very limited capacity. There was a general feeling of “you’re new, you’ve never seen/done this before, we guess you can help out but please just ‘relax.'” This year, as in one case, I just jumped in whenever it was apparent someone needed help, and all of the sudden I was on the “list” of specific people they needed for that event. I also participated in more events where teachers competed against kids, whereas last year my participation was also limited.
It’s general feeling of being welcomed in the group, which can be so rare here at times, that I really came to appreciate. I’m glad to see there are events like this that really pull a school, and community judging by all the parents that came, together. It’s feeling like you contributed to something that even sort of matters a little bit, even if you’re on a small island people tend to forget about.
And, sure, this all could come down to that I’ve finally “put in my time”, been around long enough to be more recognized in the office. This could also come down to finally being accustomed to the “system” and not viewing it with a pessimistic eye, as I did so much when I arrived. But I can’t help but now see more positives out of the whole thing than the negatives. There are plenty of problems, and I’m sure some may disagree with the above, but I’ve come around on the Sports Day. Yeah, there’s some bullshit everyone has to deal with, but once that day comes, it doesn’t really matter. Everything’s just too fun.
And fun is important.