June 16, 2014

The Sporting Life

 - A look into Elena’s school sports day -
0530: alarm clock buzzer jolts me into consciousness. I guzzle my cups of joe, quietly pack the picnic gear in a large blue IKEA bag, and set off on foot to Elena’s elementary school. Sport’s Day, baby!
I arrive near the school entrance gate (still locked) about 0630. Zoinks! There is a line of men sitting, some sprawled out on the pavement, and others sleeping with their backs against the chain link fence, in a jumbled queue that forms a perimeter around the school. This line is at least 600 meters long. I walk this band o’ dads (and all their assorted gear) with bemused calm thinking shit, there goes our seats. It’s like a line-up for Springsteen tickets.

I come across an amiable acquaintance, F-san, who kindly lets me cut into the line about 100 meters before the end. I worry that I am defying The Rules, but he assures me it’s OK and others do it, too. So I take the spot next to him. F-san says some maniacs arrive at 0300 just to ensure they will have the optimal viewing/filming spot of their child during the day’s many events. Most others arrive by 0530. I marvel again at the unwritten-yet-inviolable social etiquette that governs Japan and the manifest sense of fair play. First come, first served.
0700. The school gate opens. The assembled men stand up in unison, shoulder their kit, and make ready to move forward, like paratroopers getting ready to jump out of a C-47.
The group surges into the school grounds while the school’s teachers offer hearty “good mornings” but also keep an eagle eye on the line of dads who have now quickened the pace and are now speed walking toward the designated viewing areas. There are even roped-out one-way traffic lanes! We all make instant decisions on remaining open spots and spread the obligatory blue plastic sheet mark our territory. The criteria to choose the right spot is a balance among what spots are still available, estimated shade from the sun, and the visibility of the parade ground area where all the sporting events will take place.
I hurtle along the ingress route and near the very end secure a good spot wedged in between some trees. He shoots, he scores! I dump our stuff and decamp for home at 0705. The Rising Family in tow, we return about 30 minutes before sports day begins at…

Precisely 0900. On a stage in front of the review stand, the school principal opens the sports day with a barnburner speech. I daresay he even used the phrase “Yes, We Can.” The entire school’s six grades are split into four teams (red, blue, yellow and green) and marched into the playground. The principal spurs the kids into action with a “genki ippai” (be full of energy/go get ‘em tigers etc) rah-rah message. Sieg heil.
However, the speech goes on longer, and a few in the crowd of parents and grandparents nod off.
0920. Game on! The sun begins its relentless domain of the day. Several hundred spectators scramble to find shade under trees, next to school buildings, or under sun tents. I keep my Glock handy lest anyone try to take any of our precious shade. Stand your ground laws apply in our little blue plastic jurisdiction.
Oh yeah—the kids. The various sporting events commence. There are 24 of them today. All broadcast on the school’s loudspeakers so everyone knows where we are in the itinerary, so that you can gear up, set up for the photo of your kid, then trudge back to your base camp at the right time. The events feature lots of screaming in rapid-fire Japanese, waving of team color flags, and games where every kid participates, all choreographed by the sweating, smiling, and exhausted-looking teachers. The level of competition is just right—enough to encourage kids to want to win, but not enough to stoke any bloodletting in front of the family.
It is such a Japanese event, there is no better word for it. All the societal elements that make this country what it is, and enables it to somehow function seamlessly, are on display here:
- cramming vast hordes of people into a limited space and watching how everyone works together to eke out a compromise that all can live with without fisticuffs;
- amazing organization, little overt authority—instructions are visible, but the decisions seem to happen without need of heavy-handed bureaucrats. By osmosis everyone seems to understand his or her part in the scheme without undue policing by the staff. The rules may be unwritten but by God they are there.
- Photography, of course: all the little athletes are videotaped and photographed by their families for posterity.

Sporting Events (among the 24):
- PTA tug of war. Naomi participated. My turn again next year.
- Lady E. in the 50-meter sprint. She came in second in her heat.
- People running around, throwing balls into baskets, shout-outs. Zany nuttiness galore.

Sports day is a serious daylong commitment, lasting from 0900 until almost 1630. There is a constant flow of people walking around. Keep hydrated! You also learn to take a break when your kid is not involved. That’s when the social element is involved, with many greetings, bows, and quick chats. Thus, sports day is as much for the audience as it is for the kids. And lunch! The intricately prepared bento lunch boxes are unveiled at lunchtime. Naomi’s was a masterpiece.
This is the only photo of food that I have ever uploaded on a social media platform.
After lunch, the heat is fierce, the traffic flow starts up again, and the afternoon events commence. Most people stay to the very end. To officially close out the day the principal offers his assessment of the day and another motivational catalyst: “reach for the sky.”  Finally, there is the last march-around performance by all four teams – every kid in the school – accompanied by (I swear) the “Man in Motion” theme from St. Elmo’s Fire by David Foster.

Despite my usual wiseass depiction of this day, Sports Day and events like it are public displays that offer a window into what makes Japanese society function smoothly. I was very proud of Elena and her classmates’ effort.

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