Monday, January 6, 2014

Memories of Japan: Major Holidays and Festivals Part IV

Students all wear hats.  Different classes wear different colors.
Today is  Monday, January 6, 2014.

Health and Sports Day (Taiiku no Hi): Second Monday in October

This holiday used to be celebrated on October 10, but thanks to the Happy Monday System, it always happens on a Monday, now.  The holiday was instituted in 1966, two years after the 1964 Olympics were held in Tokyo.  The Summer Olympics were held unusually late that year in order to avoid the "rainy season" in Japan, which will be the subject of another post.  

Schools, businesses and towns hold an annual undokai (運動会), or "field day" to celebrate this holiday, although some of them are scheduled a bit later to take advantage of cooler weather.  By far the biggest undokai events are held in schools, particularly elementary schools. 

All public school buildings are built on a similar plan, and
feature a large courtyard covered in sand.
Don't let the English translation lull you into thinking that Japanese field days are the same as American ones, though.  They're not. 

For one thing, they're more formal.  In schools, all the kids wear exercise uniforms (gym clothes), always including a hat with school colors (different grades use different colors), and stand at attention in orderly rows at the start of the event while the adults make welcoming speeches. Then there is a warmup that looks like a military training session.  

In Japanese elementary schools, all grades participate together, unlike in American schools, where the younger kids are often separated from their older counterparts.  All the students are separated into teams, with kids from each grade level on every team.  In Japan, team effort is what counts, and individuals are not singled out for awards.  In a relay race, for example, first-graders will run with the baton, then hand it off to a second-grader, who will hand it off to a third-grader, and so on, with sixth-graders finishing the race.  Kids at all levels are cheering for each other.  Normal track-and-field style events are held, as well as obstacle courses and fun races such as a three-legged race.

Undokai activities are generally pretty organized.
The students themselves are in charge of determining rankings after each race, so they take a lot more ownership of the event than kids do in the United States, where field day activities are generally run by adults.  There are flags planted in a row for first through sixth place, and older kids wearing special jerseys seat the winners behind each flag.  Then another student comes along to write down the names of the winners.  

In Japan, parents are heavily involved in the undokai at their child's school.  Parents help with set-up the evening before, and on the day of the event, parents and grandparents attend in droves.  Until the mid-90s, most parents brought video cameras, but there was some concern about pedophiles, so some schools have banned video cameras at their events.  In most schools, there are events that include the parents.  In fact, there are often races that feature parents competing against each other, and parents competing against teachers! 

There may also be performances by the school band. (Very few, if any, elementary bands in the U.S. can march and play at the same time, but in Japan, they can), and grade levels get together to present a dance to music. 

These little kids are playing tame-ire with green balls.
You can see that another team nearby is using yellow
balls.  The areas for each team are marked out with a
beg circle.
Another activity is called tama-ire, an elementary school team activity.  There are two teams, often called the "red" team and the "white" team.  Each team has about 100 stuffed balls and its own basket, sitting atop a pole 1.5 to 2 meters high.  Kids gather around their team's basket and try to throw as many of their balls (which are placed on the floor around the basket) into the basket as they can.  Any number of kids can participate on each team.  The winning team is determined by counting the number of balls thrown into the basket within a certain amount of time. 

I think it's a great idea to have a national holiday dedicated to sports and healthy exercise, and I wish we had something similar in the United States.  But if you take a closer look at Japanese culture, you realize that exercise is not just a once-a-year thing for them.  Many big businesses have a gym in their office building, and the employees are encouraged to take part in group morning exercises before the start of the work day.  These exercises aren't just a morning stretch, either. They are military-style calisthenics. In addition, companies also own tennis and basketball courts out in the suburbs for their employees' use after work or on days off.  

In addition, NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation) airs rajio taisō (ラジオ体操) or "radio exercises" set to music every morning at 6:30 a.m.  I believe they are also aired on TV now.  These exercises actually got their start from an American idea: the Metropolitan Life Insurance company used to sponsor 15-minute exercises on the radio in the 1920s.  (It's a shame that the insurance companies aren't more proactive in promoting basic health nowadays, but of course they make all their money from people who are sick.) Believe it or not, when the broadcasts were first started, Japanese life expectancy was only in the mid-40s!  How things have changed!

The exercises were banned in 1946 by the American Occupation forces, because they were deemed too militaristic, but they were given a makeover and the broadcasts resumed.  They are a joint effort by the education ministry, health ministry, Japan Gymnastic Association and Japan Recreation Association.  As you can see from this video, the exercises are fairly gentle, and the girl in the middle is demonstrating how the exercises can be adapted for those who must remain seated.  

A man plays a shamisen
Culture Day (Bunka no Hi  文化の日):  November 3

Originally, November 3 was celebrated as Emperor Meiji's birthday while he was alive.  The day ceased to be a holiday with his death in 1912, but in 1927 the Japanese government decided to celebrate his birthday, anyway. After the war, the holiday was changed to Culture Day.  

Prefectures (states) hold art exhibits, culture festivals, and parades.  In the city of Hakone, they have the Feudal Lord's Parade (箱根大名行列 Hakone Daimyō Gyōretsu), in which Edo Period (1603 and 1867) clothing is featured.

A student does math operations with a soroban
Universities commonly present new research projects on this day, and K-12 schools often have some kind of "culture festival" around this time of year, where students are given awards for cultural achievements, such as skill in using the abacus, or soroban (a bead counter that, with skill, can rival an electronic calculator for speed), martial arts, folk dancing, haiku poetry, calligraphy, and playing the taiko drums, for example.

Playing a koto
Starting in 1936, the Japanese government has been inducting individuals into the Order of Culture. The honor is bestowed by the Emperor himself to those who have significantly advanced science, the arts or culture.  It is one of the highest honors given by the Imperial Family.  This honor is not restricted to Japanese citizens, by the way.  It was awarded to the Apollo 11 astronauts upon their return from the moon, as well as to literary scholar Donald Keene, a Japanese-American professor of Japanese literature who is known for his translations into English.  (Keene has recently moved permanently to Japan, and has acquired citizenship there.  Since this process normally takes quite a bit of time, I assume that his petition for citizenship was expedited for obvious reasons.) 
Donald Keene, far right, received the Order of Culture in 2008, along with several others.

Seven-year-old girl and her brothers, five and three.

Seven-Five-Three (Shichi-go-san): November 15

This is a festival, rather than a national holiday, but it's one of the most fun to watch, because little girls aged 3 and 7, and little boys aged 3 and 5 are taken to Shintō shrines all dressed up in kimono (or formal Western-style clothes) to pray for health and growth. Three-year-old girls usually wear hifu, a type of padded vest, with their kimono. (Odd numbers are considered lucky in Japan, which is one reason why these particular ages are celebrated.)

The kids are given chitose ame (千歳飴 "thousand year candy"), which is long, thin candy colored red and white.  The candy symbolizes healthy growth and longetivity.  It is presented in bags that are decorated with turtles and cranes, both symbols of long life.  The pieces of candy are individually wrapped in a thin, clear, rice-paper film that resembles plastic, but is completely edible.

It should be mentioned that some families observe the rite based on the traditional way of calculating age, or kazoedoshi, in which children are one year old at birth and gain a year on each lunar new year. 

A bunch of kids lined up by some statues.  If you look closely
you see the statues are all given hats and scarves in the winter.
A three-year-old tries to focus the camera on her seven-year-old sister.
Two little girls talking
Chitose ame candy


A little girl in her kimono and hifu vest, with her
"Thousand Year Candy"
Mom and three-year-old daughter

Labor/Thanksgiving Day (勤労感謝の日, Kinrō Kansha no Hi): November 23

This national holiday has roots in an ancient harvest festival that is still celebrated privately by the Imperial Family, but the modern holiday, established in 1948, celebrates the contributions of workers to the welfare of Japan, as well as the establishment of basic human rights and the expansion of workers' rights.  Various trade unions in Japan hold rallies and marches in Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya.  :-)

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