So last Thursday was the yearly 体育大会 (taiiku taikai) "Sports Festival". Wow. I knew the students had been preparing for it since the beginning of the semester, but I never expected it to be quite this big of a deal. Basically the entire school is split into ten teams identified with ten different colors, with every student participating. Each team is made up of students from a particular home room - three to a team - meaning they are all from different grades. Though each of the ten teams has the same basic color, each of the three teams making up the ten have their own designs for the t-shirts of each homeroom; 30 different t-shirt designs. All this adds up to is a huge mix of kids from different homerooms and social groups thrown together in the spirit of team work and a developing of a sense of community within the school between students who might not otherwise meet. That and a lot of girls wearing colorful, cute t-shirts. (Guess which part I enjoyed the most?)
The event began, as most every one seems to here in school, with a long drawn out speech from the principal that none involved - including the principal himself - paid any particular attention to. Finishing his address, he stood on the elevated platform as the students aligned themselves in orderly rows based on colors and began a marching procession with flags aloft. This performance culminated with the flag-bearers from each color converging on the principal and raising their flags in a sort of triumphal salute to his august countenance, as he smiled down at them, bowing to their obsequious display.
Then the competition began with a series of 1000 meter relays. I was invited to participate but respectfully declined, unsure if I could in fact still complete a full lap running. It's one thing for me to enter an event I can dominate - thereby winning the respect of my students and peers in the faculty - but I had no intention of being publicly emasculated by a bunch of kids. Instead I watched the action in the ample shade of the three tents erected on the sidelines for the teachers and parents to sit and watch from. Apparently the teachers used to compete as well, but now they just sit back and watch for the entirety of the 6 hours. So I made the most of a tough situation, sitting back in my chair and being brought tea by a few girls in charge of keeping the teachers and parents adequately refreshed with hot and iced tea during their strenous sitting.
After the relays was a fun-run of sorts, with students competing based on their clubs. Each club ran at one time, with the members all dressed up in their uniforms or holding their equipment. So the soccer club wears their uniforms, the basketball their jerseys, but the science club wears white lab coats and carries levels, the music club runs with acoustic guitars, and the tennis club wears ski masks and runs around hitting tennis balls at each other.
Before the event, I asked several people why the hell there was a giant pile of 10 foot long logs next to the tents, but couldn't get a satisfactory explanation. For some reason, nobody else seemed to have noticed. It turns out, they were for the next - my favorite - event, what I'll call the log war. So these logs are placed in the center of the field, lined up parallel to one another, side to side stretching across the width. The colored teams send 20 representatives at a time, and these are lined up to face each other across the field with the logs in the middle. Basically, like a battlefield.
The ref shoots the starting gun and the kids race for the logs, the point being to take as many logs back for your team as possible in a certain amount of time. However, with a limited amount of logs, maybe 20, after each team takes their first log, they have to struggle to try to bring the others back, sometimes five on five, sometimes 1 on 7, just trying to slow them down. This was the most exciting event for me, especially the beginning. With the two large groups bracing themselves and staring across the field at each other, the tension was always palpable. With the sound of the gun came the thundering of kids racing into the center at full speed, where they basically crashed into a great, seething mass of total chaos. Again, basically like a battle. There were even kids suffering from mock-shell-shock, who came up to the teacher beforehand: "Sensei, I just don't think I can take it anymore! I'm not made for this!", only to be shot down by this general's rejoinder, "You have no choice, get in there and make your team proud!" I couldn't help wishing I were able to participate, but it was probably better I didn't have the chance. I know I would have gotten carried away, started throwing some Japanese kids around, and before you know it we'd have a real battlefield after all.
The next event was the tug of war, with some thirty students on each side pulling for their lives and the rest of each team on the side cheering wildly, jumping up and down and yelling through bullhorns. Even the other teams came over to urge one side or the other on. Sitting in the tent, I jokingly asked a couple teachers how many Japanese kids they thought I could defeat in a tug of war, with my bet on "at least two boys and one girl, maybe two girls." They however, without the cultural prism of sarcasm to separate sincerity from humor, took this up as a serious point of discussion, and the idea was bandied about at length. I'm going to get myself into real trouble with the teachers here sometime with sarcasm.
The most interesting part of the event though, and this was a thing brought home to me again and again in every event, was the way in which all these kids really pulled for each other. I mean, they took these games seriously and they wanted to win each one, but they wanted to win for their team, not for themselves. When they watched other teams, they cheered on their peers as much as they did their own. Several teachers that day asked me whether they had this sort of thing in the US, and I had to admit that this is the kind of thing I only remember having in elementary school. One, I can't really see disaffected American kids participating in something so wholeheartedly. Two, I can't see them giving a shit about the idea of these groups. Well, maybe replace "disaffected American kids" with "me" - I couldn't imagine me in high school participating. This is exactly the kind of thing I would have scoffed at; "What's the point of all this community building?" I would smirk. "This is gay, and so is anyone who wants to do this crap."
But maybe that's the reason I never felt part of anything at school. Sure, there was debate, and the occasional sports team, but did I ever feel really connected to all the kids at school? Did I at UCLA? Does anyone, really? Maybe at the football or basketball games you yell at Torrey Pines or USC or whatever, but I don't feel like it carries past there in any significant way. Anyways, this is one of those situations in which the community first - individual second way of thinking in Japan really shines through, and it makes me kind of wish I harbored any like sentiment for any group larger than myself, my family, or my immediate friends.
After a while, I hit upon an even more enjoyable exercise than actually watching the events when I decided to document all the different t-shirt designs.
This involved me going around asking girls if I could take pictures of the backs of their shirts. Often the shirts had not just the original design, but each girl had drawn more herself or had her friends sign the back.
Another fun thing to point out is that I asked them to look back when I took the shots so I could get their faces, but some of the girls were too embarassed and just stayed turned around. The fun thing is that despite not looking at the camera, they still made the peace sign in front of them.
This picture I Iove because this girl on the right was acting so embarrassed and feigning reluctance to have her picture taken, making a big fuss right up until before I snapped the shot, when she suddenly pulled this demure, come hither look.
However, after I took a few pictures, I didn't have to even ask, since girls started coming up to me on their own. The girls with the matching headbands too were just too cute.
After a few more pictures, I didn't even have to leave the tent, since girls started coming all the way up to my chair and asking me to take pictures of them. The girl on the far left in this picture asked if I would take a picture of her, and when I told her I had already taken one of her color, seemed on the verge of tears. So I relented and took one of her and her friends.
So to counteract the image of me as some sort of stalker here, all these pictures were taken with the consent, if not the insistence, of those involved.These two, actually, came up behind me at the tent and stood there for 5 minutes until I noticed them and asked them what they wanted. Struggling for the English words, finally they just handed me the camera.
I took a picture of them, but they kept waiting around. Finally, I just asked them in Japanese what was up, and, relieved, they asked for a picture with me too. The girl with the dandelions in her hair then followed me around for the rest of the day and now goes into hysterics of waving every time she seem me in the halls. Fun job, this.