We are now smack in the middle of autumn, which means it is undokai season.
What is undokai?
Undokai (運動会) is a nation-wide phenomenon that happens in Japan. Schools all over the country put on this field day event where students compete in different athletic activities, otherwise known as a "Sports Day" in English.
During undokai season, all schools, including kindergartens, elementary, middle and high schools, hold an undokai. Even day care centers for children, which aren't actual schools, hold a miniature version of the event for toddlers who can't even walk yet.
Undokai is a big deal in Japan for many reasons.
Firstly, undokai began as a day to commemorate Japan's participation in the Olympics in 1964, and to promote a healthy and active lifestyle.
Formally, it is known as "Taiku no Hi" (体育の日), or "Health and Sports Day" in English, and was first held on October 10th in 1966. In 2000, however, the formal observation day was moved to the second Monday of the month.
Even though the formal and official observation day for "Health and Sports Day" is the second Monday of October, in actuality, schools pick different days to hold their undokai event.
What happens at an undokai?
Essentially, an undokai is an attempt to reenact the Olympics, complete with different competition events and opening and closing ceremonies. Instead of different countries, students are divided by grade and class. Often, to add to the spirit of "internationality," schools hang bunting with flags from all over the world throughout the school.
So much work and preparation goes into the planning and realizing of an undokai. Schools will spend days if not weeks in advance preparing for the event. All of the teachers in a school will get together to plan out the event. Different events and competitions are assigned to each grade, and all the teachers of each grade are responsible for training their respective classes in the events chosen for their particular grade.
Once a plan is settled on, teachers take their classes out to practice for events every day. Practice for these events could go on even after school is out. On rehearsal days, parents and other members of the community show up to practice setting up and breaking down. Even if you are not involved in the event itself, you still know about it if you live in the community; you can hear people making announcements and speeches and the sound of music emanating from loudspeakers, on rehearsal days, and on the day itself. If you're in Japan walking through the streets, you know when a school is having undokai rehearsal or when there's an undokai going on.
Some of the events in the undokai are non-sensical and don't have anything to do with actual Olympic events. For example, while there are some events that resemble Olympic competitions, such as sprints, relays and tug-of-war, some events are uniquely Japanese ideas which, although they might not be considered Olympic sports or events, are still athletic events that require strenuous activity, competition, cooperation and teamwork.
Some unique events people can witness at an undokai are "tamaire" (玉入れ), literally "putting in balls", "otama korogashi" (大玉転がし), literally "big ball rolling", "kumitaiso" (組体操), an event where participants create shapes using their bodies, such as human pyramids, and "shogai kyoso" (障害競走), a zany obstacle course with obstacle ideas teachers thought up. Sometimes, an entire grade will cooperate to put on an elaborate dance routine performed to pop music.
The "tamaire" event is an event where classes compete to see which class can
get the most balls into their basket within a determined amount of time. A ball
count is held at the end of each round to determine a winner.
The "otama korogashi" event is an event where students take turn rolling
a ball in teams through a determined course. There are many variations of
this event, but the main gist is to work as a team to get the ball through a course.
A class is divided into groups of three or four. The class to get their groups
to roll the ball through the set course the fastest is the "winner." Sometimes this is
an event where parents and/or teachers are asked to participate with the students.
"Kumitaiso" is an event where students work together to form human structures.
For "shogai kyoso," students in a class have to run a course with obstacles
thought up by the teachers for the event, which could include jumping or
crawling over structures, walking across a balance beam, jumping over
hurdles, or doing forward or back flips on iron bars along the way.
Especially at kindergartens, undokais often include a "paraballoon" event,
where students in a class work as a team to manipulate their "paraballoon" unto
different shapes, such as a "mushroom," "hot air balloon," "flower," "see-saw" etc.
At the end of the day, it doesn't really matter who "wins," or "loses," merely that everyone did their part and "did their best" to make it a fun athletic event filled with the spirit of competition, cooperation, team work and community.
The Soundtrack for Japanese Undokai
There is a specific kind of music that is played at undokai events.
In particular, it has become a custom for Japanese to play fast, upbeat music for events involving running, including sprints, dashes and relay races.
Certain classical/orchestral pieces are played to induce a sense of urgency in the participants.
No undokai is complete without that French cancan song everybody knows. (Officially, it's the "Infernal Galop" from Act II, Scene 2 of Jacques Offenbach's 1858 operetta Orpheus in the Underworld.) Come on, you know the one! You're already picturing girls kicking their dresses high up in the air as the tune plays.
But that's not the only one. You'll also hear other up-beat classics such as the galop from Amilcar Poncielli's La Gioconda, Hermann Necke's Csikós Post and Leroy Anderson's Bugler's Holiday.
Any up-beat classic will do.
Music enthusiasts sharp enough will spot other classics sneaking into the Japanese undokai, such as the Russian Dance from Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite, Johann Strauss's Tritsch Tratsch Polka, Rossini's William Tell Overture and Dmitri Kabalevsky's Comedian's Galop.
And, as if using classical pieces weren't enough, there are pieces especially written for undokai events.
Yes, music has become such a staple for running events at undokai, so much that it has spawned its own genre of music; Japanese composers now write music for the particular purpose of playing it at undokai events.
Japanese record companies have entire undokai music collections for teachers to browse through, which include classics as well as new compositions and medleys written for undokai events.
How undokai has influenced videogames
Undokai has become so ingrained in Japanese culture, it's no surprise its influence can be felt in videogames. Foreign players of Japanese games wouldn't know this unless they were made aware of this phenomenon. I hope readers' eyes are opened to Japanese culture that has been under their noses all this time through this blog.
I've already mentioned how up-beat music has become a staple at undokai running events.
Ever noticed how in some video games, when a player gets some sort of power up that speeds them up, the music either speeds up or it changes to something up-beat?
You could say that this may have been influenced by the fact that the Japanese use music at undokais to instill in participants a sense of urgency.
The most prominent example of this happening in a video game is probably Mario getting an invincibility star.
Another example of this is when Sonic the Hedgehog gets a pair of power sneakers.
In almost any Japanese game where the character has some sort of hyper ability, the music changes to something more up-beat.
The music changes in Kirby games whenever he gets an invincibility lollypop.
The one game that leaves me no doubt that undokai has influenced videogames is in Super Mario Land, where when Mario gets an invincibility star, not only the music changes, it changes to Offenbach's cancan song.
For the longest time I wondered, why does the music change to this?
Well, now I know why.
Another game where the influence of undokai can be sensed is in Kirby Superstar, where one of the sub-games included in this multi-game pack is a game called "The Gourmet Race."
The game is a course of three races, where Kirby must race to be the player who eats the most food and gets to the end of each track.
The music for this game is an up-beat piece which is a mashup of a melody made for this sub-game, and another melody occurring in other parts of Kirby Superstar. It's such a famous piece that different versions of it can be heard in other games, such as Kirby 64, Kirby 3 and Super Smash Brothers Melee.
And finally, just for fun, I wanted to point out that one of the competitive games in Mario Party 7 for the GameCube was a ball-rolling event, which is a common event at undokais.
For this event, you work with another player to roll the ball
through an obstacle course. You must coordinate with another
player, just like you do in the otama korogashi event at an undokai!