Some Thoughts on Culture Shock and the Phenomenon Known as “Sports Day”

こんにちは、みんなさん!

Good day (or evening, as it is here) to you all! I’m trying to get myself back on a regular posting schedule, so let’s see what happens here.

Today, I just wanted to touch base on culture shock once again. When I came to Japan two months ago at the end of July, I was warned over and over and over and over again about culture shock. I was warned before I got here, at Tokyo orientation when I actually got here, again when I got to Hyogo…it just never ends.

So, based on all the warnings, naturally I was kind of expecting to follow the culture shock cycle. I’m too lazy to actually look it up, but I believe it goes something along the lines of (1) the honeymoon phase, (2) adjustment, (3) true culture shock/hatred of everything, (4) adjustment again? Or acceptance? I don’t know, man. I just know that what is essentially a teenage angst-like phase comes somewhere after the honeymoon phase where you’re just miserable and want to go home and hate everything and everyone in your new country and you feel like the whole country is out to get you.

I must reiterate how I am not following these patterns at all.

I feel like I was in the honeymoon phase for longer than I should have been to begin with. Especially the first two weeks, everything was just absolutely magical. I bought everything I saw because for some reason I was having trouble understanding that I will be here at least 1-2 years if not longer. I wanted to go everywhere and do everything.

It took about a good month for me to feel comfortably out of the honeymoon phase once I finally got settled (whereas the normal honeymoon phase is typically around a week or two). I got my apartment furnished the way I want it, began settling in to my work schedule and teaching, and the outings became less frequent.

As for the teenage angst phase, aside from the constant and very rational fear that I will be seriously injured or killed in a pedestrian traffic accident here, the confusion that is navigating a freaking sidewalk because Japanese native citizens were apparently never taught to stick to one side of the sidewalk when in doubt, and the utter travesty known as “squat toilets,” I can’t think of anything that I hate about Japan. I love Japan. I love the people. I love the places. The things. The experiences. What other people might find to be annoying contributions to the, “I-hate-everything-about-my-new-country” phase, I just find interesting. Like the constant use of umbrellas, regardless of the weather. Or being quiet on trains. I just find it all really fascinating.

thought that I was safely out of the honeymoon phase, but (here’s where the title of this post comes into play), I was wrong. The phenomenon known to Japan as “Sports Day,” or “Sports Festival,” depending on your school, pulled me back in to the endless loop that is my perpetual Japanese honeymoon phase.

Where to begin, where to begin?

I knew about the impending Sports Day for several weeks before it actually happened. I just thought it would be something similar to what my high school did for spirit week. Some normal sports competitions, cheering, stuff like that. Basketball, volleyball, what have you. Holy moly was I wrong.

I couldn’t stop laughing.

I should have known how weird it would be on Wednesday when my school had rehearsal for Sports Day. The sheer fact that Sports Day, which is itself only a single day, needs yet ANOTHER WHOLE DAY just to rehearse/prepare should have tipped me off. For some reason it didn’t. Maybe because the rehearsal didn’t look so silly. They basically learned their formations for the opening ceremonies and closing ceremonies, learned how to set up their tents, and did dry runs of their sports/games/exercises. It didn’t look weird at all, really.

Fast forward two days to actual Sports Day (it got postponed a day because of weather). It was the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever seen in my life.

I’ll just give you a rundown of what happened, and you can judge the level of ridiculousness for yourselves.

To start, the youngins marched into the yard (very neatly and orderly, I might add-it was a highly organized affair), lined up, listened to the principal and everyone beforehand, etc. That was normal. But then they did their stretches.

Have you ever seen nearly a thousand students simultaneously doing stretches in a large, perfectly organized grid to some very silly sounding music and chants? No? It’s really funny. It goes a little something like this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7__I80Mimy4

Yes, this is actually a thing. I highly recommend that you do actually click that random youtube link to see the stretching song for yourselves because (a) it’s just plain funny and (b) it’ll make it easier to understand where I’m coming from. I had to try really hard to contain my laughter and hide my fairly obvious amusement from the parents who came to watch, who were probably wondering, “Who is that gaijin and why is she making such weird faces?”

After all of this was done, they all went to their respective assigned spots and the first events began: the ichinensei (first year students) group relay races! I use the word “relay,” but I honestly don’t know what else to call it. It was pretty damn funny.

All of the ichinensei participated and there were at least six or seven different things they had to do. First, groups of three raced to the end and came back to their class. Two students ran, but the third student wasn’t allowed to touch the ground, so naturally they got very creative in the ways in which they suspended their third person. Some groups did wheelbarrow style. Some did the ever-popular human chair. Others carried their third wheel horizontally like a log. Then they had four people holding a pole horizontally and they had to run in a line with it around cones placed for obstacles. Upon their return, what I can only describe as a human centipede (sorry for the imagery if you’ve seen the movie with the same title), seven students with their ankles all tied together in a row, waddled their way to the end and back, followed by a two-person unit resembling a more normal bug with their ankles tied together hobbling side to side like they were performing some odd little jig down the field. Upon their return, a six-person leap frog unit was deployed to hop their way down the field and then hold hands all the way back. Then the human chair made a repeat appearance, and finally, the tallest boy and shortest girl in each class were paired together for a three-legged race.

The next events were normal relays for each class, so I’ll spare you the details in favor of the juicier events.

After the normal relays, the boys did some weird event that honestly looked rather dangerous. They formed pods of four people with a fifth person riding on top. They circled to a taiko drum beat for a minute and looked all intimidating in their pod units. Then the pods took action, and they all crammed together and started shoving each other around in an attempt to snatch the caps of the opposing teams’ colors.

Then my favorite event happened. It involved a man dressed in a skimpy maid outfit. It was a “relay,” but it was really freaking weird. Each team had three people running, or I guess competing would be the better word. The first runners had to run to a row of baseball bats. They had to prop their baseball bat on the ground and circle around it ten times to make themselves dizzy. Then they picked up a tray of tennis balls and had to run all wobbly to the next person without dropping their tennis balls. The second person then had to crawl under a short net and run to a suspended bouncy string with bread buns hanging from it. They had to jump and grab the bread with their teeth, no hands allowed. Then they had to run to the third runner, who had to go to a tray of candy covered in powdered sugar. They weren’t allowed to use their hands either, so they bobbed for sugar-covered candy and their faces got all white. Once they got their candy, the received a board with a message that said, “Find Santa!” or, “Find someone you think is cool!”, etc., from the crowd. Several of the teachers participated in this piece of magic. All in all, the costumes we had were: Female Santa, a witch, a man dressed in a China doll outfit, a random poorly constructed rainbow afro outfit, a Dragon Ball character (not going to pretend like I know which one because I don’t like Dragon Ball), a chubby teacher dressed in a Stitch onesie from Lilo and Stitch, and my favorite, the tall male English teacher dressed in a short-skirted maid outfit, bonnet and all. I have never had more regret about not having my camera with me. The best part was that the man-maid was hiding among the brass band club members and the kid tasked with finding him just COULD NOT do it and was running all over the field trying to find him. He was the last to cross the finish, but boy was it funny when the rest of the school saw him in that outfit and started laughing. At least I’ll always have the memory.

I actually ended up participating in a very similar version of this later in the day. The morning of, some of the other teachers asked me if I could be their second runner in the teacher relay race for the “yonnensei” teachers. If you know anything about Japanese high schools, you’ll know that there are no yonnensei (fourth year students). There are only three grades, ichinensei (first year), ninensei (second year), and sannensei (third year). For us, “yonnensei” teachers were the reject, homeroom-less teachers that don’t really fit in anywhere else, myself included. So not really knowing what I was supposed to do, I got roped into being the second runner who crawled under the net and grabbed the bread. The yonnensei teachers were kind of doomed from the start. Our first runner was the oldest teacher in the bunch and was the last to get to where the second runners were. Then poor little foreigner me had no blessed clue what I was doing. I got under the net ok, but when it came to bread grabbing, I had trouble, and then when I did knock it down finally, I didn’t know if I was supposed to bring the bread with me or not, so in my confusion about what to do with it, another teacher passed me so I just ran after them. Then our last runners were a three-legged race pair who because of my slowness were also doomed. I may have made a slight fool of myself, but the students loved it. They never have talked to me more than after seeing me make myself look stupid. Like it finally occurred to them that, “Oh, Erin-sensei can make stupid mistakes too! She’s one of us now!”

Some of the other weird activities involved a school-wide tug-of-war contest, which was pretty insane. The girls also did this weird thing where they had giant inflatable balls and had to hold them up as a group. Their mission was to have half their team hold their ball and send half their team to attack the other team’s ball, in the hopes that they could defend their own long enough for their other members to successfully known down their opponent’s. The boys did something similar except with really tall poles with flags at the top. For some reason they did this shirtless and shoeless, and the chubbier boys thought it would be funny to draw abs on their stomachs with Sharpie markers.

Finally, my second-favorite event behind the weird bread/man-maid relay was the club uniform relays. All of the clubs marched out in their club uniforms and did a giant relay in their club outfits. Instead of traditional batons, they used items specific to their club. The swim team used kick boards. The kendo club used their bamboo swords. The American football club used a football. The cooking club used a ladle. Naturally the track and field club had a huge advantage so they had a HUGE handicap and were forced to go about twice as far back as the other runners. The poor fencing, judo, kendo, and American football clubs never had a chance simply due to the sheer amount of bulk in terms of fabric on their bodies. But it was so funny watching them run around the track in their outfits!

It was all just so hilarious to me that I couldn’t stop laughing, and I loved every second of it. Weird? Yes. Amazing? Also yes. Every time I think my honeymoon phase is over, something else happens and it comes flooding back to me all over again.

Sorry for yet again another novel, but I wanted to share all of this before it all escaped me! Hopefully next year I’ll be able to get some photos. Curse my lack of preparation!

またね!

-Erin

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