Why Sports Day is a Big Deal

June 8th, 2012By Category: Culture, Teaching in Japan

“Red Team: 844 points. White Team: 843 points.” 

Cheers erupted from the Red Team; the White Team burst into tears. The junior high school students hugged each other in celebration and consolation. Though the Sports Day closing ceremony proceeded on as solemnly as before, the mood of the crowd was like the ending of a Hollywood movie.

As I watched the White Team smiling and posing for pictures despite their tears, I tried to remember a time when I cried as a junior high school student in America.

Did you ever cry in junior high school? Not because a friend said something mean to you or you failed a test—but because your classmates won or lost a school event?

As a foreigner, it’s often difficult to understand the rationale behind things like “cleaning time” and “Sports Day” in Japanese schools. Asking why the students aren’t allowed to wear piercings or untuck their shirts will get you as far as “That’s the rule,” or “It’s always done that way.” I thought I was being incredibly clever when I pointed out that dirt will still transfer to your indoor shoes if you put them in the same box as your outdoor shoes.

“That’s true,” laughed the teacher, “but we still do it that way.”>

A little Internet reading pointed me to the “in-group/out-group” explanation of Japanese society, and the famous proverb, “The nail that sticks out will be pounded down.” Aha! An explanation I can understand! The Japanese school system isn’t teaching children to be global citizens, but training them to follow orders and stifling individual expression!

Junior high school students in Japan are much more independent than American students. They can sit in a classroom unattended without burning the school down. During assemblies they conduct all the ceremonial duties themselves. They can police their own classroom. Of course, every school is different, and some students are better behaved than others. But Japanese classrooms at every level have more opportunities for students to take on responsibilities and lead their classmates. If they were only taught to stand in line and wait for instructions, they wouldn’t be able to start class with “shisei wo tadashite.”

The truth is that there are many elements of Japanese schools that don’t align with the Japan-as-neo-Nazis narrative. It’s an oversimplification of a few values painted onto the entire education system. While there certainly are flaws—overzealous multiple choice testing, for example—there are many beautiful aspects of Japanese schools that I wish I had had when I was growing up. I never felt as connected to my grade and my school as Japanese students do in junior high.

ALTs and other foreigners connected to Japanese schools have differing opinions on the importance of school events. So do the Japanese themselves. It’s not easy or fun to prepare for such a huge school event (which, by the way, is set up by the students, not the teachers or PTA). But it’s through these events that students learn how to work as a group. They’re learning to be Japanese citizens.

After the closing ceremony, the students split up to help put away the chairs, banners, and tents. The tails of their red and white headbands trailed behind them in the breeze, but with Sports Day over, they were no longer Red Team and White Team, just West Junior High School students carrying chairs into the gym and looking forward to their substitute holiday on Monday.

Author of this article

Rebecca O Neil

Rebecca is an English teacher and takenoko connoisseur living in Chiba. She enjoys chocolate koalas, Japanese-style dodgeball, and really awful jokes.

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