May is a little early for Japanese Sports Days but in compartmentalised Tokyo these rentable sports grounds are booked solid through the summer months. The entire student body, and teachers, are assembled on the pitch. The students lined up according to colour coded houses, and the teachers are sitting under the just erected canopy, the only available shade today.
As the sun burns down from above the Tokyo Skytree, and the Skytree looms over the pitch, four male students, representative of their house colours, stand in front of the principal with their arms raised in a straight armed salute. They’re taking it in turns to shout the lines of a speech they prepared in advance, eyes closed, voices hard and earnest. They shout of difficulty, honour and obstacles overcome. Behind them four flag bearers, all boys, stand to attention. And some way behind them again, the student body is arranged by house, using their hands on hips as measurement as to where they should stand. When the speech is finished, the principal, standing on a portable metal stage, acknowledges their effort and declares the start of the 2016 Taiikusai.
One of the lead boys takes to the stage to announce the beginning of Rajio taisō, the essential Japanese activity to be performed before any physical activity, and sometimes by whole families before breakfast on a work day. My personal favourite encounter was watching construction men, at 7:00am, swing their arms in time to nursery-rhyme-style piano beat. Rajio Taiso, the hugely popular Radio Morning Exercises that have been aired by NHK for 90 years, are radio calisthenics so engrained in the Japanese national identity that they’ve been featured in many Japanese artworks, such as Murakami’s Norwegian Wood and in the anime Welcome to the Spaceshow. Many of the teachers join in, and the parents, in the bleachers, are standing up to participate in this national pastime.
As the song finishes the students clear the pitches so that the games can begin. Although fairly traditional up until this point I can now spot the house uniforms, with matching bandanas, worn by the four houses. It seems each house has their colour, which is again broken into homeroom classes, and each homeroom is allowed to decorate their coloured shirt with whatever design they want. Most have adapted famous sports logos by adding smiley faces and student names, with English words like ‘ultimate’ and ‘extreme’ thrown in for good measure. Boys wear their matching bandanas around their foreheads and the girls wear them on top of their hair, where some have cleverly folded them into cat ears. It seems all movement on and off the pitch is to be done by running only, whilst in your teams. And so green, blue, red and yellow masses ripple off the pitches to make way for the first game; Bohiki.
First up, the girls play Bohiki; ‘bo’ standing for a bamboo bow, and ‘hiki’ meaning to pull. Two houses face off at a time, so about 100 girls are lined up on either side of the pitch, lengthways. Their target is the 10 or so bamboo sticks lined up in the middle of the field; the team who pulls the most bamboo sticks across their team’s home line wins. There is a 5 minute time limit. Although this is technically a non-contact game, as the fake gun pops and the girls surge forward you realise this won’t be without casualties. The teams converge on the bamboo, wrenching and pulling, some girls falling down to be stepped on by their own team members or whole teams being pulled onto their knees and stomachs by the more powerful side. Some girls step forward to rally the others to sync their heaves, a sure-fire way to get the upper hand. It’s chaos, which becomes more chaotic as the sticks pass the home lines. Here, no longer important, they’re dropped and the girls turn tail to converge on other bamboo sticks. After 4 minutes the entirety of 2 or 3 classes of girls are tugging on either side of a single bamboo stick. As the gun pops again, each team retreats to their bases to hold their bamboo prizes upright to be counted.
Next up the boys take the field to play Kibasen, which is translated as ‘cavalry fight’ but one of my colleagues assures me the kanji also means ‘almost battle’ which gives you a clue as to how rough and violent this game is. Three boys cross arms in such a way as to be able to carry a fourth, who is standing. That fourth boy wears a white or red cap, depending on which side of the pitch they’re playing on. Each collection of 4 boys; the horses and rider, are a cavalry.
About 8 teams form the calvary lined up on opposite sides of the pitch, white on one side, red on the other. The object of the game is to grab as many hats from your opponents as possible. Within seconds of starting I can see that there are entrenched tactics at work; three cavalries will attack an opposing cavalry from all sides, causing a distraction whilst another whips off the hat from behind. Sound clean and simple? Not so much. A fair few accidental, and non-accidental, thumps and punches are thrown in fighting off your attacker, or attempting to grab the hat. The whole spectacle made my British Health-and-Safety-Self fall out of my seat whilst simultaneously dying to give it a try. I’m thoroughly jealous I’ve never played this.
In the next section of the day the houses separate into their homerooms to compete in pretty much any way you can imagine, there are four-legged races, relays, skipping competitions where the whole class (40 to 42 students) line up along a monumentally long skipping rope and referees (older students) skip the rope around and round by lunging their bodies in huge circles. The name of all of these games is teamwork and many of the students have spent time running though the corridors tied together on their lunch breaks, chanting, to get their team on point.
The class competitions take a long time and afterwards we break for lunch. The teachers retiring to the one air-conditioned room in the building to eat whilst the students sit outside in the searing sun eating their pack lunches. Once everyone is refreshed Oendan, the competitive cheering squads section, begins. Oendan is taken extremely seriously, is a traditional part of a Japanese sports day, and the preparation begins months in advance. The houses choreograph their dances, create costumes, and arrange huge packs of students into pleasing displays, and create cheers and chants.
As a new teacher I’m asked to take part in the assessment on the day, which is long, complicated and, frankly, bureaucratic. The cheers are broken up into two sections; a 3 minute choreographed cheer followed by a 7 minute dance piece accompanied by music. I can’t remember all of the marking criteria but I had to score out of 10 for timing, how well they danced in sync, how well the movement matched the music, if they smiled, how loud were the cheers, did the corresponding house students in the stalls behind us cheer back as part of the routine, how good were the costumes, and did their performance match their theme. Of course, each cheer squad gave us a full report on their theme in advance… I relied heavily on the English teachers to translate for me. The cheers were genki (bubbly) to a degree that reminded me of‘Bring It On’ minus throwing people in the air. They shouted, cheered, and danced themselves silly,all whilst smiling crazily. As the pitch was along the Arakawa River there were huge crowds of people stopping to watch at the fence, some jumping off their bikes to witness the spectacle.
When the cheering competitions were completed the students were exhausted, hot, and suffering from a whole day in the sun. It was about 3pm at this point. Possibly it was because of this, or because everyone knows Track and Field Club will win anyway, but the relay descended into sheer shenanigans. Kendo passed the baton by pulling a long series of moves as they approached each other, acoustic club used their batons to pretend to be playing instruments, badminton and tennis stopped running completely to team up and have a fake match, and in one round of the relay all the students joined hands and ran apace.
Tug of war
The games culminated in a huge tug of war. A giant metal wheel was pushed out onto the field and from it a group of ten students slowly unwound a gargantuan coil of rope that was thicker than my fist and seemed to have its own impetus, like a huge fat worm. As the students struggled to stretch it out over the entire length of the field two houses arranged themselves at either end, starting with red and green. That makes roughly 225 students on either end of the rope.
However, the boys start on the race track, whilst the girls line up along the rope. As the crack of the gun echoes around the pitch the boys run a half lap before joining the tug, whilst the girls jump straight in. As this is the last set of games, it is the deciding game between the two houses rivalling for first place: blue and green. Home room teachers abandoned their composure by getting on the pitch and shouting at their students to pull harder, ending in a hugely triumphant roar from the greens.
With the races over, energy dwindling, and more than a few students having been sunburnt or in the nurse’s office due to sun exposure, the day culminates in an awards ceremony. The team leaders and their flag bearers congregated around the principal again, their teams standing a little ways back. They look a lot more haggard than this morning, cat ears drooping and cheeks sporting the bright slap of sunburn. The principal congratulates the students whilst the final scores are kept hidden. In a dramatic reveal, with the Oendan results added to the final total, the green team are announced as the 2016 Taiikusai winners. Certificates are presented, a cup given to the winner, and the very grand prize of five notebooks were given to the winning team (around 225 students, don’t ask me how that works). The head of the Parent Teacher Association gave a few words and the students were dismissed, which was apparently the entire student body’s queue to ask me to be in their selfies, so my plans to go get ice cream were delayed by about 45 minutes of squinting and peace signing into iphones wondering where on earth these horrific pictures were going to disappear to.
Please note: The Japanese Government has very strict rules about taking photos of people without their permission, let alone sharing on social media. As is to be expected taking photos of school property or students and teachers are totally prohibited. As such, there aren’t that many photos and videos to share.