In Japan, sports day is known as Undokai and this event is usually held in schools across the country on a Saturday or Sunday. Students will practice the events during the weeks leading up to the sports day hoping they can impress their parents and friends in their standard of sporting prowess. Undokai also features performances by the school band and various school clubs which can be individual or group events. The events are usually held on the school sports field and being in the sun during the heat of the day can present some problems for some students. Some schools have now scheduled their sports day to be held during cooler months as well as to encourage students to regularly drink plenty of water. Most schools now hold these events either in the spring months of May and June or in the fall months of September and October.

The Origins of Undokai

The idea or concept of sports meetings originated in Europe through the ancient Greeks and their Olympic competitions although other sports were played earlier than this. However, the athletic competition in Japan through Undokai is a little different in that it promotes other concepts such as folk dancing and activities conducted by a group of people to encourage a team event. Marching also incorporates an element of military precision into the sports day to make it a truly unique event not seen elsewhere in the world. There are varied accounts as to its origins: One claim is that it began in a navy military science dormitory during a period of instruction in 1874. Another slightly earlier claim is that it originated as a competition among workmen in 1868 at an ironworks in Yokosuka. A third theory is that it began at an agricultural school in Sapporo in 1878.

However, despite these earlier claims, what is now Tokyo University states that it was the first to use the term ‘Athletic meet’ at its inaugural event in 1883. Combining study and sport in a combined effort to attract its students.

When the first Minister of Education, Arinori Mori, visited the facility he judged it to be effective for physical education and later passed an official order for athletic meetings to take place at elementary and junior high schools across the entire country of Japan. At that time the education system was not fully implemented with sports facilities so the sports meets were often conducted in the grounds of a Shinto shrine combining education, sport and religious study. These early events took on several different forms and were performed in large open spaces using varied sports and team games that would later encourage competitions between neighboring schools.

Is it an athletic meeting or a festival?

These events brought together students of the schools that were participating as well as parishioners and supporters of the Buddhist temples that were hosting these events. From its early days Undokai was more than an athletic meet as people of differing backgrounds congregated together to participate in what was effectively a festival of sport with children and adults competing against competitors of a similar age group. As the various sports events began to take shape with some form of continuity as to what sports and games were included in Undokai and whether it was a summer or autumn event another aspect of the event was the birth of folk dancing. This was a way of rejoicing and hoping for a successful harvest through the element of dance with an element of religion mixed in.

The origins of some of the games can be found in other countries, the ‘throwing ball game’ could easily be traced back to the game of basketball and its origins in the USA. The hurdle race, horse riding and obstacle races have origins elsewhere while the ‘tug of war’ originated in the UK and was long seen as a sporting contest during their harvest time.

Is Undokai a spring or autumn event?

In 1985 during a questionnaire 19.7% of those that answered said it was an autumn event while 32.2% said spring and 48.1% felt it was a summer event. In Hokkaido it is usually held during the spring season. A similar questionnaire conducted in 2012 had 43.7% saying it was a spring event with a little over half of those responding (53.5%) opting for an answer of autumn.

Why is it primarily an autumn event?

There are two reasons why Undokai is considered to be an autumn event, the first one relating to its origins connected with the harvest that is conducted during the autumn season, the spring season is a busy time when lots of people are too busy with planting their rice. During the autumn once the rice crop has been harvested it was a time for celebration. The second reason dates back to October 1964 and the hosting of the Olympic Games in Tokyo. The Olympics were held later that year to avoid the heat of a Tokyo summer. Shortly afterwards an athletics meet was held at the stadium and the 10th of October was then announced as being a national holiday in Japan, named as ‘Health Sports Day.’

The reasons some schools prefer a spring event

In some areas of Japan spring remains the preferred season due to the possibility of it being too hot in that region later in the year. Other reasons include that the school may be too busy later in the year with other events such as school excursions. Holding the event in spring is considered by some school leaders to raise the schools unity by performing athletically during the first semester of the year as well as leaving the autumn free for students to fully concentrate on their upcoming examinations and the preparation and study involved.

Traditional events embracing new ideas

While there are many traditions of Undokai that remain, competitors taking part in sports and games already listed as well as the walking race, the high jump and shot-put. There are also some modern games emerging recently such as bubble ball which helps to carry this event into the future and its appeal continues with the next generation of competitors.