Blogging the string in the labyrinth of Crete

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Raising Bicultural Children: Undokai

Undokai (OON-DOH-KYE) is the Japanese version of field or sports day. Kids all get together and participate in various track-and-field activities. This weekend, my two older sons had undokai on Saturday and Sunday.

Unlike American field day, which from what I recall of my childhood was pretty much just an in-school event, Japanese undokai is usually held on a weekend, and parents and other family members attend to watch. It is extremely popular: my wife tells me that in Japan, families will sometimes arrive at 6 am to ensure getting the best seat. Calling the events "track-and-field" is something of an exaggeration, as many of them do not resemble standard sports.

Four-year old CharmerBoy's undokai was 40 minutes away. My wife and I woke up at 6 Saturday morning and started drowsily making lunch of onigiri, tamagoyaki, and edamame (rice balls, small sliced omelettes, and soybeans). We packed up the car, dropped Superboy off at his Saturday school, and managed to arrive at the event just before 9.

There were perhaps 300 people at the field, and perhaps about 5 were American (3 husbands and 2 wives). People set out their blankets and umbrellas, got their cameras ready, and chatted before the activities got underway. The atmosphere was pretty relaxed and friendly, and the opening event -- a 50 meter race -- was done with much fanfare but virtually no competitiveness. This set the tone for most of the events, where the winner was more of a footnote than anything else. Indeed, it was often difficult to even tell who (or which side, since most events were group competitions) had won.

One aspect of undokai that's very different from American field day is the expectation of parental participation. This is especially true at the preschool level, where the parents probably did more than the children. My wife had circled every event on the "parental participation" sheet the day before, indicating we'd do pretty much anything they asked. Some of the events involved races, games, or dances with the kids, and some were parent-only events that the kids would enjoy watching.

"Love love couple", for example, was a race which started with the wife blindfolded. The husband would clap to lead her to a table, where she could remove the blindfold. Then the couple would run to a marker while holding hands, circle it, and race back to the starting point. This event, and actually pretty much every race, was done as a relay. Personally, I found the father's "triathlon" -- situps, jump rope, and spinning ten times in a race around the track --
the most challenging, falling heavily after spinning and then trying to run at top speed around a curve.

The undokai lasted until about noon, when everyone stopped for lunch. There was then a brief closing ceremony where the kids all got medals, and after some more chatting everyone went home. My wife was impressed mostly by CharmerBoy's popularity. Other children were continually coming over to pull him away to play or run around whenever there was a break in the action.

Superboy's undokai on Sunday was a larger affair, and more competitive, but still retained some of the elements of family participation, the midday lunch, and a fondness for relay races. It also involved more preparation: this time, my wife and I woke up at 5:30 am to make a more impressive lunch, make a zabuton (small seat) for Superboy from a newspaper in a taped plastic bag, and sew his blue nametags onto the front and back of a white shirt. Once again we arrived just prior to 9 am to find an already-substantial crowd (in the picture) camped out on the field, with a growing crowd in the stands. Huge banners had been painted at the top of the stands, and there were shade tents for the hundreds of participants from various grades. About twenty parents had set up tripods along the race track in preparation for capturing the perfect shot.

The children had previously been divided into red and white teams, and events throughout the day were scored and a running tally kept. The division into teams seemed to increase the competitive spirit considerably, and there was a lot of rhythmic cheering, flag-waving, and victory celebrations. There were track races (relay, mostly) scattered throughout the day, interspersed with other events such as tug-of-war and tamaire (teams have three minutes to throw as many bean bags into a raised basket as possible -- sort of a group basketball).

A lot of the events involved unusual rules. Tug-of-war, for instance, was done with many ropes of differing lengths laid out on the field, and the contestants would run from opposing starting lines to get as many ropes as possible (which naturally leads into tug-of-war). Another interesting event involved the few hundred members of each team lining up on each side of the field and then trying to surround as many members of the other team as they could with a linked human chain. Unlike American field days, there were also several dance performances.

Families were again more than spectators. Superboy and I managed to win our heat's parent-child three-legged race mostly through diving at the very end. There was a race for younger children which involved running up to one of the older children with a pokemon hat and playing a short game of janken (rock-paper-scissors) for a piece of candy before running to the finish line. All the children somehow managed to win the candy, and were far less concerned with being the first to finish than with having the candy. I sat out of the parent dodgeball variant and another race which involved the kids finding a parent with some random quality (so there were kids running around with signs asking for "A father who likes soccer" or "A mother who enjoys going to the hot springs"), who would then have to run back to the finish line with the kids.

The day ended at about 3:30 with the white team finishing 200 points ahead and each kid receiving a bubble pen as a prize. Chatting continued for some time while everyone filtered off the field making afternoon and dinner plans (mostly eating out or the husbands making food -- it was Mother's Day, after all).

The downplay of competition, incidentally, is apparently somewhat recent, as my wife indicates that there were a lot of medals and trophies given out when she was in school. Still, even then there were apparently many group events and relay races designed to limit individual culpability for wins and losses. It's hard to make any clear statement as to whether the Japanese undokai is something which shapes Japanese culture or is an expression of it. Certainly some of the activities and the way events were run would play easily into many stereotyped opinions of the Japanese, both good and bad. Undokai are a lot of fun, though, and most Americans would find them fascinating.

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