Why Sports Day is a big deal


“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.

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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.

This has nothing to do with independence, as much as it has to do with social control.

But Japanese classrooms at every level have more opportunities for students to take on responsibilities and lead their classmates.

They are not leading, they are doing as they were trained. Leadership involves more than following orders.

there are many beautiful aspects of Japanese schools that I wish I had had when I was growing up.

Name 3, please?

Sorry, but sports days are a complete waste of time. When mine get old enough to enroll, they will be conveniently ill on those days and study at home. My 3 year old can already throw a ball further than most 10 year olds I've seen in Japan. Along with the juku system, it is indicative of the time wasting mentality that has continued to plague schools, government, and offices . Arrgh, it's just frustrating thinking about it.

-1 ( +11 / -12 )

It's not the sports day itself, but the days and days of practice leading up to it that eat up the time. The sports days themselves were held on Saturdays. One I went to lasted for about six hours on a scorchingly hot day: lots of gaman needed for that one.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

realteacher - so after they pend all that time with their class prepping and practicing, they're going to miss it? Will you first ask them if they want to miss it? What if they tell you they want to go?

6 ( +8 / -2 )

realteacher - so after they pend all that time with their class prepping and practicing, they're going to miss it? Will you first ask them if they want to miss it? What if they tell you they want to go?

They won't be wasting all that time prepping. They'll be home... very sick... with a dangerous halfu illness.

-8 ( +3 / -11 )

Real teacher you remind me of me before my kids entered the system. I used to say exactly the same things. Just wait until they are there, and then decide. My kids both love sports day and have a fabulous time. Of course, being one of over 2000 parents armed with recording equipment and crammed into a not-fit-for-purpose schoolyard for 7 blisteringly hot hours with armed PTA rottweilers on patrol is a whole other matter...

5 ( +5 / -0 )

Was recommended to me from someone else on the site:

Japanese Higher Education As Myth:

Talks about how the Japanese education system is pumping out average drones out of the education system that can work anywhere with no special skills is any one area, just across the board generic skills and that anyone above average is hammered back into average and anyone dumb is left behind.

4 ( +6 / -2 )

@gogogo - so true.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Why Sports Day is a big deal

Because it is fun and exciting. Don't know you but I was very excited when my dad came to see me running on sport's days when I was a kid.

6 ( +7 / -1 )

Sports Day DOES encapsulate Japanese education very well. Endless hours spent faffing about and wasting time for a very limited payoff. Weeks of practice, leading up to exactly ONE event in a year. Schools would be far better off IMHO to have intermural and intramural sports leagues. Have constant sport as part of school life, instead of a one-shot event. Let the kids (gasp) CHOOSE their team-mates and make their own teams. This would prove the "independence" the writer so erroneously praised.

But no. That would take away from time the students could spend dashing to juku, or (again) faffing about in a school organized sports club that (again) plays only one or two matches in a year. It DOES prepare students for the future, though. It teaches them that being in the proper place for the proper amount of time is much more important than actually improving one's skills.

2 ( +4 / -2 )

Well said vast, well said! Much like entrance exams, all prep for one day where some will be victorious and others will fail miserably. But in the end, everyone gets a turn and much time is wasted.

-3 ( +0 / -3 )

realteacher, I know exactly where you're coming from because I was there, too, fifteen years ago. So I hope you will take some of what follows as humble advice.

I was just as dead set against my two kids turning into non-thinking drones, and I used to rail against their elementary school at every chance I had. But in the process, what I eventually learned, luckily not too late (and here's where I want you to think extra hard) is that I was actually hurting my kids more than helping them.

Sports Day represents less than 5% of the cookie-cutting process that goes on in Japanese schools, so why pick on it? If you really think that your kids are being held back or turning intro drones, there is only one thing to do: remove them from the school and send them to an international school instead. Because the brainwashing is all-pervasive every day of the year, in class and out (bukatsu, etc), so merely feigning illness on Sports Day and practice days is not going to mean a hill of beans.

And here's where the pain comes into play. By forcing your "live free of die" aspirations onto your children ("forcing" in the sense that they can't possibly understand them as such a young age), you will be further isolating them from their classmates and friends, and they will resent you for this. In their pure innocence, all they really care about is fitting in and having fun at school, so I think it's unfair (actually I KNOW it's unfair because I was guilty of it, too) to your kids.

The real challenge as a parent in this situation, is to provide enough support, guidance, and love at home to allow them to see (and witness from you and your wife) the beauty of both group solidarity and freelance individualism. In my case, this took the form of humor, practical jokes, acting silly in public to show them it was all right . . . and guess what? It clearly worked. Now both in their twenties, they eventually learned to heed the schoolmaster's whip with a grain of salt, following along but with a strong sense of their own unique self . . . able to separate the uniformity of behavior from the distinctiveness of thought. Having learned to take the best of both worlds, they have become quintessentially bi-cultural. My pet peeve growing up was that "one plus one equals three," and they finally now understand it in their hearts. And they continue to thank me.

5 ( +7 / -2 )

Well said Ben. I think this is where bi cultural kids with 'good" parents win with regards to raising their kids. How many J kids don't get taught it is okay to have a sense of individuals? Most of them, a shame to say.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

granted that partaking in Sports Day won't make children turn into mindless robots.. I don't understand the point of this article and she didn't really explain why it was a big deal.

North Americans (possibly being general here but I know of no other schools in my province that had an event like this) like myself who never ever had a sports day-like event at school may find this extremely bizarre, watching kids practice for a few weeks before the actual day, the marching around, etc etc.. whereas a Japanese person who grew up with this may think the same of me, that it was bizarre that I never had this.

When I was teaching in Japan at elementary schools.. I never really understood why so much time was being spent on preparing this. Why everything needed to be practiced again and again, I felt it took the fun out of it.. but thats just me. And the kids set up the event in the sense that they helped put up tents and chairs.. but to say they did everything themselves.. yeah right

I did enjoy however, going out and getting rip roaring drunk with the other teachers that evening

4 ( +4 / -0 )

I would expect the Japanese public education system to receive a stern lecture or two from their British Commonwealth counterparts, but to attract the vocal disapproval of the Americans? our kids are in greater danger than I thought.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

The whole of Japanese education is one gigantic cram school. They take tests throughout their school careers but they are absolutely meaningless (except to separate them into different classes by ability). The only test that counts is Uni entrance exam. Uni, of course, is a joke, because they start the interview process when they are Juniors. Nothing they learn in school will be used at their jobs, as companies train them "their" way anyhow. As soon as they enter the company, they are deemed "freshmen" again, and are again brainwashed for a year or so, working long hours and writing useless reports designed to make their superiors feel superior.

As far as comparing Japan to the west, I think the system of the west is better. Here's why: If you don't want to play sports, you aren't forced to. If you do want to play sports, you can go out for any number of teams. And you won't just mindlessly practice, you actually play against the teams of other schools, and learn real competition.

And to answer the author's opening question, yes, I have seen plenty of kids cry during sports( during championship games, etc). But they were only sports they wanted to play, not sports they were forced to play.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

i think too much time is taken away from actual leaning for this ridiculous crap. i hated every moment of those six sports days that we sat in the hot sun - or rain - and it really wasn`t even a family event as the kids were not allowed to have their lunch with their families. instead they sat in hot classrooms - yeah like they wanted to sit in those hot classrooms an additional day - and we sat outside in the blazing sun.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

I remember having a sports day when I was a child living in a small town in Canada. No one practiced anything before the event, however, we just went out and did different events. We were allowed to choose which events we wanted and there was no pressure.

At the end, the winners went on to compete against the winners of a neighbouring school. All I remember was that I got time off from "regular" school, so I was pretty happy about that. Oh, and the tons of congratulations I got when a classmate and myself got medals competing against the other school. I had no idea what I was doing, however, and it was by sheer luck that I even got a medal. Fun was had by all, so I don't feel like it was wasted time even though this was done on a regular school day, not on a weekend.

I think the message given by the author is that sport's day brings the students closer together where they learn to work with each other even if they don't win.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Junior high school students in Japan are much more independent than American students. During assemblies they conduct all the ceremonial duties themselves.

In my experience, the students do indeed conduct all the ceremonial duties themselves BUT the students who do those ceremonial duties were CHOSEN BY THE TEACHER. Or, in some very few cases, elected by their classmates (not their year-mates, only those 30 or so in their classroom). And, in many cases, they were told, again by the teacher, what to say and where to walk. Independence? Not hardly.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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