text and photo by Grigoris A. Miliaresis
Its name evokes images of the national holidays that used to characterize the Soviet Empire; considering that Japan never went through a soviet phase, the closest parallel would be the first period of the Showa era (1926-1989), when the militarists made every effort to keep the Japanese people’s morale high while preparing them to demand with their guns the position they deemed worthy in the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere”. Still, the holiday has nothing to do with that period; it was established during the era of the Showa emperor but much later, after a very shiny moment of post-war Japan: the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Hence the name: “Health and Sports Day” or “Taiiku No Hi” (体育の日) celebrated on the second Monday of October.
As the name implies, the day is a reminder to the Japanese of the importance of physical exercise; for some reason and even though sports are among their national obsessions, the government believes it is important to have a day dedicated to them And although on this day one can see numerous events of various calibers, for the everyday people and particularly to those who are parents, the particular three day weekend means basically one thing: the local “undo-kai” (運動会) that is, the athletic meet in the area’s school. Not because the sports and the prizes are that important but because it is one more chance for the members of the community to come together and strengthen their ties; in other words it is not about normal gymnastics –it is about social gymnastics.
Regardless of the weather (I have been in undo-kai under a summer heat or under a heavy winter downpour) the people of the area gather in the yards of elementary schools and watch their children (and they are their children, even if they are not parents themselves) to compete in a multitude of competitions that vary from the most classic sports to the most imaginative games; in some of them adults participate too, giving to the event a sense of celebration that can’t fail to move even the passing-by spectator. Laughter, shouts and a competitiveness that probably isn’t always innocent but which gets disarmed by the good-humored teasing of the spectators and by the happy faces of the children, transform a bureaucracy designated day to a real holiday that has managed to go unnoticed by all tourist guides.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes in the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years. For more information about his work and his writing, visit http://about.me/GrigorisMiliaresis and http://www.japanarekore.gr/