Monday, September 13, 2010

Undokai--an Excercise in Translation

That's Koshi there--in second place.  80m dash.

September and October--Undokai time over here.  That's "Track and Field Day".   Well, sort of.  Translating "Undokai" is kind of like trying to translate German Kuchen and Torte to Cake and Pie.  Well, sort of.  They don't really match up much.  Anybody who's been to Germany and eaten a nice german Kuchen knows that the word may look like "cake", but the thing you ate looked a lot more like pie.  Sort of.  And the Torte looks like cake.  So which word should you use if you want to translate English "cake" into German?   And what if you're trying to describe Pie?  It doesn't matter which German word you pick, they won't have the right picture in their heads.   It's a problem--trust me, I've tried explaining it to Germans before.  You go round and round.  Which brings me to Undokai.

  Undo means excercise, Kai means party or meet or meeting or...a few other things (it's an oft-used word).  "excercise party", though, just doesn't quite get the right image across.  Every year somebody here asks me if they have Undokai in America, too.  Well, sort of.  "Track and Field Day", which is what I remember from elementary school, is the event closest in spirit to Japanese Undokai.  Sort of.  The only thing that matches up from what I remember, is the 50yard dash (our school has 40m for 1st and 2nd grade, 80m for 3rd and 4th, and 100m for 5th and 6th).

But we didn't have the Suzuwari:

gold for the red team... 

...and silver for the white team.  

They're sort of like pinata, but no candy inside.  The kids  (in teams) throw beanbags at them till they break open and the streamers come out.  The team that gets theirs to come open first wins points (a group point-getting effort).  This is traditional--I don't think you could go to an Undokai in Japan and not see this event.   The bells (that's what "Suzu" means, "wari" means "break")  are iconic--you see them in any depiction of an Undokai.  An Undokai with no bells would be Christmas with no tree.

There it is--lovely mylar streamers shimmering in the breeze (alas, this year the white team won the Suzuwari).  And unless I am much mistaken, American track-and-field days don't usually include cheerleaders, or big drums:

The Taiko drum...

...and the cheerleaders (girls *and* boys, note)
At one point, during the long "encouragement chant" (this stuff just does *not* translate!), the Red Team turns to the White Team and encourages the other team to do their best ("Gambare!"), and vice versa.  Do we do this?  Somehow,  I don't think so.  That's my oldest, up there on the right and his best friend with the whistle. 

The other thing I've never seen or heard of at Track-and-Field Day, but which is an integral part of the Undokai, is dancing:

awww....aren't they cute:)  See--something for everybody!  Even the kids who can't run too fast can do well in the dance, or the whole group excercise, or the Suzuwari or the Tama-ire game (throwing beanbag balls into  a bucket up on top of a pole--group game). *Everybody* gets to have a good time. Plus--photo ops a-plenty for parents!! (Sorry about all that alliteration...)

That's the first and second graders up above, below is last year's third and fourth graders (my oldest was in third grade last year) dancing to ....can you guess by looking?

...did you guess the Thriller dance?  They wore ripped up old tshirts with fake blood and marker scribbles.  Really.  And they jumped rope during some of the harder parts of the dance:)  Believe me, this stuff is just beyond cute.  If I told you my kids just had their Track-and-Field Day in Japan, would you get these kind of pictures in your head?  Of course not.  Undokai and Track-and-Field just don't match up really.   The only thing that *is* the same is the dashes--sort of.  See--they don't hand out any ribbons.  The kids run, usually four at a time, and just sit down behind the first, second, third, or fourth place pole:

There's Cici sitting at the fourth place pole, with all the other kids who were fourth.  The third, second, and first place poles are visible to the right.  First place is recognized, but not made too big a deal of.  Fourth place is not disparaged.  The teachers run kids together who run roughly the same speed, so the fastest kid in class doesn't run against the slowest.  That way everybody is encouraged to run their best, because they really might be first if they try hard.   Very thoughtful, no?

Japanese Undokai is really equal parts competition and cooperation, and it's the cooperation part that's missing from American Track-and-Field Day. 

So, now that I've uploaded all these images of Undokai into your brain, you can pull them up the next time I talk about it:))  And not mix it up with Track-and-Field, because they're really only sort of similar.

Mata asobou, ne!


  1. We used to have something similar at infant schools (5-11 yr old). The games were different; sack race, egg & spoon race and such, and there'd quite often be a fete-type thing for the parents, with lucky dips and such, but the idea was roughly the same I think. It always drizzled at ours though...

  2. Yes, much better to have the parents come too. In the US, ours was on a weekday and was strictly track and field events, with ribbons. Plenty of kids didn't get a ribbon, so did they really get anything out of it?

    Last year our Undokai got put off because of a typhoon coming through, always a threat at this time of year...

  3. Sigh....undokai..... it was so fun a couple years ago to actually get to see the kids participate! Maybe next year... I wanna come again :-)

  4. Yes! Yes! Come again--the elementary school undokai is much nicer. Not nearly so crowded, and not as long. Also, there are places to sit or stand in the *shade*. Wish you could have seen Koshi's class do the Thriller dance--*so* cute. And that was when (a week before the Undokai) he fell off his bike, chipped his front tooth, had a huge fat lip with stitches, a scrape on his cheek, and various and sundry other abrasions. He *totally* looked like a Zombie!! He got his stitches out before the actual day, though...

  5. hee hee! Please say you got a video of 'thriller'... MUST SEE

  6. I think there is, but it's on the old video camera:((