Japanese sports festivals and blossoming camaraderie

One of the most loved (or dreaded, if you’re a couch potato like me) traditions of Japanese primary education is the sports festival. Classes are assigned a team color and pitted against each other. The school grounds are opened for cheering parents. The warm sound of shouting and laughter drifts through the air. When I was in Japan two years ago, I had watched a sports festival at my host sister’s elementary school, cooing along with the parents as we watched children toddle through all manners of obstacle courses. This Monday, it was finally my turn to compete.

The sports festival I participated in was a collaborative event planned by the two main international circles of Waseda University. Japanese and foreign students alike mingled and ran wild throughout the gym, playing dodgeball, running relays and jumping rope. Tug-of-war was ferocious. Six ropes, worth 10 points each, had been left in the middle of the room; we were to race to them, and then tug them back to our respective goals. The planners, all of whom had quite a sense of humor, also decided to throw in an extra, 25-point “golden snitch”—in the form of a pair of lacy panties. The end of the festival was crowned by a muscle contest, in which students were given a chance to show off their bulging biceps (or, in my case, lack thereof) through planks, pushups and arm-wrestling contests.

The game that stood out the most for me, though, was called Kiba-Sen, translated as “cavalry battle.” Four people form a team; three on the bottom, joining hands to become a “horse,” with the final person (retaining their human identity) riding on top. Opposing teams then charge at each other, with the riders on top vying to snatch each others’ headbands. In our case, however, these were metamorphosed into flamboyant purple afros. I, by the way, was given the role of the horse’s left flank.

At the end of the day, I was sweaty, tired and bruised by dodgeballs. But, somewhere along the way, I had come to realize why Japanese schools prize the sports festival so much. There’s something about adrenaline and endorphins that bonds people together like nothing else. Add in a pair of lace-panties, and there’s your formula to camaraderie.