Undokai - School Sports Day Festival in Japan

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You know the Japanese school sports festivals called Undokai? These sports meet consists of a huge amount of sports, gymkhana and other activities involving students from all over the school.

The Undokai It is an informal event, which takes place on a weekend where country and children get together at school. During this event, children and young people interact in competitive activities for fun.

From elementary school to university, students and their families come together to participate in this sporting event unlike any other, with unique and fun games.

The competition is usually held outdoors and is an opportunity for students to show their sportsmanship and competitive spirit, as well as celebrate unity and cooperation between teams.

The History of Undokai

The Undokai [運動会] emerged in Japan around 1880, when it was declared in the constitution that family members should gather in schools annually in order to fraternize.

Undokai is a compound word: "undô" means sport and movement, and "kai" is Japanese for gathering. However, the best translation for Undokai is family sports gymkhana.

Undokais are usually held in autumn in the months of September, October or November. The Undokai emerged as a way to celebrate the arrival of autumn and commemorate the good harvest.

In some schools, the Undokai is held in the month of May, taking advantage of the start of classes in April, for greater integration between students and teachers.

The most interesting thing is that the calendars are very well organized, so parents can participate in all Undokais, regardless of the grade their children are studying.

Over the years, the Undokai has evolved to include a wide range of sports games and activities, including relay races, team games, tests of physical ability, water games and much more.

Undokai lasts an entire day, colorful flags are stretched across the entire length of the field and several competitions take place at the same time.

Each family brings their own snack and some schools usually have a place to have a nice picnic. The country usually makes their own obento, onigiri, some appetizers and various other snacks.

Japan elementary school sports festival

What does Undokai mean?

We know that the meaning of Undokai is sports festival. But have you ever stopped to think about the etymology of the word and its ideograms?

I will explain the ideograms that make up the word "Undokai":

  1. 運 (Un): This ideogram means "sorte" or "destiny". It is used to represent the idea of "movement" or "activity" in the context of Undokai.
  2. 動 (Do): This ideogram means “move” or “act”. It indicates action or movement, which is the central part of "Undokai".
  3. 会 (Kai): This ideogram is used to represent a "meeting" or "assembly". In the context of "Undokai", it implies a gathering of people to participate in sporting activities.

Po1TP29Both, when combined, the ideograms "運動会" (Undokai) represent the meeting or event where people come together to participate in sports activities and promote movement and action, often in a spirit of camaraderie and healthy competition.

Undokai Event Games

There are numerous games and scavenger hunts, all diversified. No football/soccer, volleyball, baseball or the usual sports. Some schools usually have another date to hold competitions and championships with sports and school clubs. At the Undokai we have very different sports and some simple ones to interact with the whole family.

races - The most traditional are races, in which the distance varies according to the age of the students. Generally between 50 and 200 meters.

stunts - School classes often do an acrobatics show. They usually make the human pyramid.

Oodama (Big Ball) - In this particular game the children play in 2 ways, they try to pass the giant ball over between the students. Others tend to push the giant ball like crazy...

samurai fight – A game where 3 students serve as a horse (support) and the student who is on top of the 3 students has to take the opponent's hat or bandana.

Japan elementary school sports festival

Bands – A group of students forms their band, and spends the event marching and playing their traditional instruments.

dances – There are also dance displays and other cultural activities for the entertainment of the crowd. One of them is the famous radio taiso, which is a standardized fitness program.

Ball in the basket - There are 2 ways to play this game. One way is that there is a huge basket, and students must try to fill their basket using small bean bag chairs. In the other case, the teacher has the basket on his back, and the students have to run after him to fill the basket.

Bo-taoshi - It's a Japanese flag pique where two teams of around 150 people each compete to see who can protect the flag or knock down the enemy flag that's on a pole.

It is worth remembering that there is no age limit for these events. Even the adult community can organize similar events for the entire community regardless of whether they are studying or not.

Other Undokai Sportes

See below some more sprtes available in some Undokai with their names in Japanese.

  1. Sakasa Juku: (逆さ塾) - Invertida relay race: In this race, participants run backwards, passing the baton to the next runner in an invertida way.
  2. Tokkuri Yubi: (徳利指) - Obstacle race: A race with obstacles, such as low fences, tires and holes in the path, that competitors must overcome.
  3. Shotto Pūto: (ショットプート) English: Shotto Pūto - Shot put: Similar to the "shot put" in Western sports, participants throw a shot put as far as possible.
  4. Nawatobi: (縄跳び) - Jump rope: Teams compete in jumping rope synchronously, often with specific rhythms.
  5. Kyūdō: (弓道) - Archery: An archery competition, where participants try to accept targets with arrows.
  6. Tsuna Hiki: (綱引き) Tsuna Hiki: (綱引き) - Tug of war game: Two teams compete by pulling a rope on opposite sides, trying to drag the opposing team to their side.
  7. Sack Race: (麻袋競争 - Ami-bukuro kyōsō) - Sack race: Participants jump into potato sacks or burlap sacks, jumping to the finish line.
  8. Sanbon Shōbu: (三本勝負) - Sumo fights: Miniature sumo competitions where participants try to push their opponent out of the circle.
  9. Shinnyo-en Odori: (真如苑 dance) - Dances and performances: Presentations of traditional dances or creative choreography.
  10. Sunīku Tugowā: (スニーク・ツゴワー) -> Sunīku Tugowā: (Sneak Tsugowa) - Three-legged race: Race where participants have their legs tied together on one leg and must run together.
  11. Javurin Tōssu: (ジャヴリン投げ) - Dart Throwing: A dart throwing competition, where participants try to throw darts as far as possible.
  12. Ekiden: (駅伝) - Endurance race: A long-distance relay race, often held as a team marathon.
  13. Yōga to Yawarakasa: (ヨーガと柔らかさ) - Yoga and stretching: Activities that emphasize flexibility and balance, such as yoga positions and stretches.

It is important to remember that the variety of activities may vary from school to school and from company to company that holds these sporting events.

How does the Japanese school system work and how can I enroll?

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My Experience in an Undokai

During my 2023 trip to Japan, I had the chance to go to a friend's grandchildren's Undokai, which took place around the third week of October.

In this Elementary School Undokai, I expected to see those different sprtes originating from Japan, but unfortunately there were only races.

My friend said that due to COVID, the Undokai ended up having their time reduced, so we only had common sprtes.

Fortunately, we had several music and dance performances. It was really cool to watch all the interaction and the family was ready to watch.

Below I leave the video of my visit to Undokai:

YouTube video

Undokai videos

Nothing better than ending our article, with great videos so you can get to know Undokai. Below we have the video of Velberan:

YouTube video

Undokai performed among adult students. My Ordinary Day Channel (JNDCD):

YouTube video

Video showing Thalita Matsura's Undokai:

YouTube video

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