Undokai, or the Japanese annual school athletic meet, is another word introduced to us by our four-year-old daughter, Iva. But more than just sharing a new word, she really promoted and sold this one – an event that is beloved and greatly anticipated by kindergarten to high school students all over Japan. Held almost simultaneously with the 10 October holiday, the national Sports Day, undokai also allows families to bond with their kids in a school setting. In a way, it also bids goodbye to the warm summer days and ushers in the cold spells of autumn and winter.

Knowing Iva, undokai has the makings of an instant-hit activity to her: a chance to be in the limelight, to perform, and to compete. And so, even though practices were held almost everyday for about a month at her youchien, she would extend kindergarten hours at home and rehearse her cheers, songs, routines, and formations. A very caring sister, she would also involve young Uri, who was usually more than happy to indulge her. No wonder, come undokai day, her brother was just as pumped up as his little big sister.

Students perform their stunts in front of spectators surrounding the youchien.

The Japanese being very strict with time, we arrived an hour early at Iva’s school. It had a nice festive feel as lines of colored paper hung over our heads and across the open field. Looking closer, we realized that the colorful banners were personal artworks – self-portraits of the youchien students who would soon be competing. A few moments later when the school grounds started filling up, we realized just how big an event undokai really was. It seemed like all the families were complete for the athletic meet, with some even joined by grandparents, other relatives, and friends. Everyone also came well equipped with picnic and personal necessities for the daylong activity, from mats, tents, sunblocks and hats to water bottles, table napkins, and their neatly packed and artistically prepared lunch meals called bento.

The family enjoys the Filipino version of the bento, except for Uri who prefers a nice nap under his hat.

“Daddy, they said I need to drink water now,” Iva told me upon hearing the voice of her sensei (“teacher”) on the school’s loudspeaker. “Okay, here,” I told her, unwilling to get in the way of her excitement, even if all I could make out in the voice was mizu (“water”), and what I assumed was some conjugation of nomu (“to drink”), which I think I have not yet studied in my Nihongo class or was just spoken too fast for me to catch. After hydrating herself, Iva bid us goodbye and followed her classmates who had started their way to the school grounds. As the event got under way, we settled together with the other families with our picnic mat at the school’s 2nd floor roof deck, where we had a nice bird’s eye view of the action below.

All dressed in white shirts and blue shorts with opposing yellow and white hats, the kids – about a hundred boys and girls between ages three and six – were splendid in their formation. And while they were in attention, as any parent would, I tried looking for my athlete. Thankfully, I found her before they changed formation. By looking first at purple shoes and then checking for double pigtails, I learned to pinpoint Iva as the performances and games were being held.

Spotting one’s child can offer quite a challenge when the kids are in formation.

Going into her games with her peers, Iva was intently focused even as she cheered her teammates on and waited for her turn. It manifested with her impressive performances, which thankfully, I had video-recorded, and of which I haven’t tired of watching as yet. She flew on her first event, sprinting for about 15 meters, and smoothly pivoting around a pylon for a return dash. She was likewise fluid at the second race, which involved running past a grass hurdle and tossing a ring inside a box that was a short distance from the kids. Iva was at the winning team of the finale, a tug-of-war that divided all the students into two big-and-cuddly groups.

Iva and the rest of her class compete in a sprint relay.
The little athletes stand at the line as they prepare to race.

That not many words are needed to understand sports helped a whole lot, since we couldn’t make out most of the words being said on the loudspeaker and by everyone else in the school. Simply, the race would always be won by who finishes first, and that the group who tugs more wins the tug-of-war. Also, the event was so organized that, thanks to the coordination between the school staff and some parent volunteers, all we had to do was watch everything unfold from our perch. We also had some warm welcome and attention from a few Japanese parent-acquaintances who checked on us every so often to make sure that we were okay, even though they barely spoke English. Although foreign and unable to speak the native tongue, we felt less anxious and really enjoyed the school-family affair that Regina and I even got to play in the games for parents.

The house divided, the little youchien athletes patiently await further instructions for the finale tug-of-war.

Proud and happy about her competitive spirit and achievements, I suddenly envisioned her being in the Olympics. With Japan’s big love for sports, I believe anything is possible.

A happy and fulfilled Iva poses with her well-deserved medal.