Bound at the ankle and being screamed at in a high pitch wail, my life in Japan had once again taken a turn into new realms of oddness.
Hold on, take a deep breath.
I don’t live in Tokyo and this story isn’t nearly as dirty as that opening line makes it sound. In truth the whole thing was pretty cute, because the high pitched wail was emanating from a group of fifty of my adorable kindergarten students screaming, “Gambatte Matto Sensei!” Which simply means, “go for it Teacher Matt!”
And my bound ankle? I was in a three-legged race with the other kindergarten teacher.
See? Now you feel bad for leaping to such filthy minded conclusions. There’s your mind launching headlong into to the seedier side of life and I was merely attempting to write a somewhat dramatic introduction to a day in my otherwise uninteresting life by dropping you into the middle of the action. That action being a typical Japanese sports day or undoukai as it is known here in Nippon.
Now just because the kids were adorable doesn’t mean this event was any less rigidly structured than the rest of Japanese society.
It’s always worth remembering that the Japanese don’t do anything by half. You work until you drop, whether in high school or as a suited salary man. Everything must be cute, even the animation on the TV at the Driving License centre imploring you to do up your seat belt or risk a violent, long jumper-esque death through a windshield. Sports clubs require daily dedication. You must maintain true Japanese traditions, shrines and temples dotting the countryside. You must embrace modernity, McDonald’s and KFC dotting the freeways. Spirituality is not hidden away, but a church will sit opposite a hostess bar. Gambling is banned but Pachinko is everywhere. Japan is a safe, relatively crime free country… oh look a Yakuza in the front row of the sumo.
So of course, the Kindergarten Undokai, or sports day doesn’t escape this. Teachers and the PTA had been at the school since around four a.m. Parents and family had begun to arrive at around six a.m. in order to drop their blanket on a prime spectator location. Me? I rolled in at ten thirty and sat with last year’s PTA who were the guests of honour. My job has some minor perks.
What followed would usually fill me with a certain amount of trepidation. I know full well how long Japanese educational events can last, the organization that goes into them and just how tired people look when it’s all done and dusted. Then there’s the speeches…oh lord.
But instead it went by in a flash. The parents of the students made me feel welcome. I chatted in broken Japanese with a member of last years PTA about how cute yet strange the whole day seemed to me and she did her best to explain what the upcoming races were and the rules involved. I attempted to eat as much of the sushi on offer at lunch with the teachers (I’m afraid I rather struggle with the level of Japanese vinegar in the sushi, which is frustrating since the amount seems to vary considerably through the year meaning sometimes I think it is delicious and other times my face turns into a contorted mess) while answering their questions to the best of my abilities. I even raced twice, one time in a centipede race with three of the dads and once in a three-legged race with one of the kindergarten teachers.
The strangest part of the whole day was also possibly the most impressive. The dance routines from the five and six years olds were incredible. Bright costumes, highly choreographed routines displaying an excess of cuteness to match the incredible precision of sixty five year olds dancing in perfect time.
That’s kind of Japan in a nutshell really, even their love of all things kawai or cute isn’t free of a good months hard work.
Since you are IN Japan, maybe you can spread the word and help… have you seen the movie The Cove? It is 2009 academy award winning documentary and it changed my life, and my view of Japan.
Since you are in Japan, you must see!
Here is the Blog
I haven’t actually seen it, though I’ve been aware of it for a while. Having just watched a few clips of it on the site, it is obviously impossible not to be moved by such sights. However, if you glance through my blog, you’ll see I have on occasion approached certain taboos (and as you know, anything shameful is a huge taboo here) with my students to little or no avail.
Though, such topics are generally avoided in Japan, which is obviously why such a campaign as this is so necessary, I will broach the subject with my high school students and suggest they watch the Japanese clip.
If I’m honest, I feel a certain trepidation in approaching the subject beyond or below my high school students. Honour, age and seniority play such a part here (I’m only in my twenties) that anything vaguely resembling condemnation of Japanese activities will be dismissed as, ‘bakagaijin,’ or foolish foreigner. Also, my limited language skills (yes, an excuse I’m afraid) mean that this kind of serious conversation is often beyond me in the outside world, while in the classroom I’m not inclined to bring it up. If I went to a Japanese lesson I wouldn’t wish to be called upon to discuss Afghanistan, Iraq or any number of issues and I won’t do the same to my students.
I would however, ask have you ever visited this country? Because while the act you campaign against is appalling, I have in the past found that condemnation from outsiders to be counterproductive in such attempts to stop said activities. The experience I speak of is not in regards to Japan, but to America and also my home England. A locally tailored approach can go a long way and as the incredibly small number of people following the Japan Cove Twitter feed can attest to, the campaign has barely made a dent here.
I’ll do what I can, I’ll watch the film, I’ll pass on the Japanese link to people who read this site in a later post as well as to certain students, but I worry that an American film lecturing anyone in Japan on anything in the current climate will fall on deaf ears. Has anyone tried to get a Japanese film crew to do the same?
I love this description!
Cheers Megan! Had a good laugh reading your blog. Keep it up.