Japan Society of Fairfield County
Greenwich Japanese School Sports Festival 2006

by Vernon Beck
     As president of JSFC, I was invited to attend the Sports Festival at the Greenwich Japanese School, which generously hosted our own Ohanami on April 23, 2006. The event proved to be of great interest to me as it contrasted 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.
     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, most of which was in English and was typical of what would be used in Japan. The competitors entered the field at the start of an event through an 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 "Keep trying with spirit" 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. Usually three grade levels ran a set of heats with individual heats consisting of a single grade. The children were obviously trying with considerable spirit. Everyone ran once in a sprint with 2 or 3 other runners and was lined up with the preceding runners who placed the same in their own heat. After the event the athletes marched off the field with their finishing groups from the corner of the field opposite the entry gate.
     The group events were clever and rewarded teamwork. The first event involved fifth and sixth graders trying to pull poles to their end of the field. Eight 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 very Japanese event. 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 6' 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.
     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 4 students had to carry a pipe crossways (perpendicular to the direction of motion) around a course of cones.
     The next event involved moving the large 6’ ball around the field and balancing it on the legs of an overturned student desk.
     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 runner was limited to run on the backs of his 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 version of the bamboo dance from the Philippine Islands done with the ever-present PVC pipes. Fourth, fifth, and sixth graders formed groups of 6. Four students stepped in and out of the pipes which were being clapped together by two students at the ends.
     After a pleasant picnic lunch (and it was extra pleasant because the sun came out, banishing the rain predicted for the day), the second portion of the program was begun by another set of team cheers totaling about 15 minutes. A student with a black belt in judo lead one of the team’s cheering.
     The first afternoon event was a centipede race for the 5th, 6th, 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 with pompoms. Their performance was intricate and more closely resembled the performance of a high school marching band doing formations. 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 6' 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. Unfortunately one of the large balls was not up to the students' high spirits and its multicolored cloth cover popped with a bang. The competition was completed by timing individual team runs. The red team eked out a victory on the final run.
     The closing ceremony involved presenting awards to the red and white teams. The ceremony was structured to honor both teams although a few individual awards were made too. The winner take all spirit was notably absent.
     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. They are responsible for cleaning the school and serving lunch. At the end of the event, I asked vice principal Osa how long the students had been preparing for the sports festival. I was surprised at the answer – only two weeks. Of course, the students knew the sports festival was coming so in some sense they were preparing all year. The level of cooperation between the students was high as was their sportsmanship. The sports festival was quite traditional; the adults I was sitting with fondly remembered their experiences in the same events when they were children in Japan. Perhaps I’m a bit more Japanese now that I can fondly remember my experiences at Sports Festival.
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