Inku
Japan Society of Fairfield County
Greenwich Japanese School Sports Festival 2008

by Vernon Beck
     As vice president of JSFC, I was invited to attend the Sports Festival at the Greenwich Japanese School, which generously hosted the JSFC Ohanami on April 20, 2008. The Sports Festival is the major event in the Japanese school year. Since my quick internet search failed to find significant english language material I chose to give a more extensive description of the GJS Sports Festival as a way to contrast Japanese and American educational philosophies. The GJS has over 200 students ranging from first grade through ninth grade. The elementary school consists of grades 1-6 and the junior high school grades 7-9.  The 2008 program was very similar to the 2006 program which I attended and also reported on in this website. This year I knew to bring my camera so there are many photographs to accompany the article.

     For purposes of competition the school was divided into two teams, red and white. The teams included all the students in the school from the youngest to the oldest as well as the handicapped. The older more able students were expected to provide some help to their younger teammates. The program consisted of group events and sprints where individuals would compete. Students took turns announcing the events in Japanese and English and they did a good job in both languages. The events were often accompanied by Disney music, occasionally in English, and was typical of what would be used in Japan. The competitors entered the field at the start of an event through a traditional entry gate that had been erected.

     Stretching exercises were first on the agenda. Next, 15 minutes was devoted to team cheering. Each team had an opportunity to cheer; the theme was "Find your inner Power/It's time to Shine" and everyone got charged up. A taiko drum was available for use in the cheering. Japanese cheering is far more organized and taken more seriously than in the US.

     The first set of sprints were run by the third, fourth, and eighth graders. Everyone ran once in a sprint with 2 to 4 other runners in the same grade level.  The children were obviously trying hard.  After the heat the children were lined up with the preceding runners who placed the same in their own heat. This was the extent of individual recognition.

     The group events were clever and demanded teamwork. The first event involved fifth and sixth graders trying to pull poles to their end of the field. Five 1-1/2" diameter PVC plastic pipes 10' long were placed across the field centerline. The two teams gathered at opposite ends of the field and after a starting signal ran to the field center to grab the poles and drag them to their end of the field. Sometimes a good sprinter could grab a pole and take it back unopposed, but usually more and more students grabbed on in a growing tug of war.

     After two sets of sprints, the 3rd, 4th, and 8th graders participated in a relay which had a very Japanese theme. During some Japanese summer festivals portable shrines are carried through the streets by competing teams. For this event two 10' plastic pipes and a large ball about 4' in diameter comprised the shrine which was carried by a team of 5 students of varying age: one in front holding the front ends of both pipes; two in the rear, each holding the rear end of a pipe; and two on the sides, keeping the ball balanced on the pipes. The competition was a relay race so that everyone had a chance to participate.   The ball was alternately carried using the pipes and rolled around the track by successive teams.
 
     Next the first and second graders participated in a tug-o-war. The first graders started on the rope and second graders had to run half way round the field before being allowed to join in pulling the rope. More sprints followed.

     The third and fourth graders then participated in a relay race where 5 students had to carry a pipe crossways (perpendicular to the direction of motion) around a course of cones.  When they returned the pole to the starting point, all waiting team members first had to jump over the pole and then have the pole carried back over their heads before the next team of 5 began to run with the pole across the field.

     The next race was based on the Japanese animae series Galaxy Express.  The series first appeared several decades ago and is about a ghostly steam train which travels to strange and often sad worlds throughout the galaxy. The train is in the charge of a small ghost conductor who rides in the boiler of the engine.  The Japanese language program listed the event as Galaxy Express 127 because it was for first, second, and seventh graders. One student from each grade occupied one of three hoola-hoops connected together and they all moved together as one unit, the train.  The first grader was in front with a hat similar to that used by the conductor.

     The parents and teachers participated in the next event which was somewhat like basketball. The object was to throw about 25 small balls (or cushions) into a basket about 10' high. There was no backboard and participants surrounded the net and threw balls from all directions. Once all the small balls were in the net a single soccer ball was thrown into the net to finish the event.

     The junior high school students next had an unusual race up and down the field involving all the students. Each team had only one runner in this race but the racecourse consisted of  the backs of all the other teammates. Each team formed a line down the length of the field, bending over and putting their hands on their knees. Student spotters accompanied the runner on each side as he ran over his classmates. Since there were not enough students to make a line the length of the field, they needed to run to the head of the line so the runner didn't run out of backs.
 
     The last event of the morning was a dance based on Lion King done by the fourth, fifth, and sixth graders.

     After a pleasant picnic lunch (and it was extra pleasant because the sun was out, banishing the rain predicted for the day just like in 2006), the second portion of the program was begun by another set of team cheers totaling about 15 minutes. Two students dressed in hakima lead the red team’s cheering.
     The first afternoon event was a centipede race for the 5th, 2nd, and 9th graders. Approximately ten students were lined up in a "Chain Gang" with all their left ankles tied to one rope and all their right ankles tied to another rope. Cooperation was inevitable in this event.

     All the first, second, and third graders then put on a dance. Their performance was intricate and based on a fisherman's song from the northern island of Hokkaido. It was an impressive program done by very young children.

     All the junior high students then formed human pyramids. The tallest pyramid had students stacked 5 high with the top student about 10' in the air. Less able students made smaller two high stacks.
 
     The elementary students then ran a relay race of 12 runners. The red and white teams subdivided into 2 or 3 teams which were competing for the parent team. The junior high school students then ran a similar relay race.

     The last event of the day was a race between the entire red and white teams. Each team had to pass the large 4' ball overhead down the length of the field, around a pylon, and back. First graders started the line and passed the ball back to the taller second graders and so forth.  at the end of the race, the ball had to be balanced upon the four legs of an overturned student desk.

     The closing ceremony involved presenting awards to the red and white teams. The ceremony was structured to honor both teams. The winner take all spirit was notably absent.  The red team won and received the flag shown to the right and the white team received a trophy cup.

     After the closing ceremony the students did not leave, but put away the equipment, chairs, tables, etc. Japanese elementary school students take a much greater role in the upkeep of their school than their American counterparts. Often they are responsible for cleaning the school and serving lunch.  In 2006 I was told that the students only spent two weeks preparing for the Sports Festival. Of course, the students knew the sports festival was coming so in some sense they were preparing all year.  The sports festival was quite traditional; many of the adults I was sitting with fondly remembered their experiences in the same events when they were children in Japan. One remarked that the equipment is very inexpensive which was a tradition that was started from the post-war poverty that gripped Japan. The event was designed to promote cooperation between students and good sportsmanship and succeeded wonderfully..
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