This year, Taiiku no hi (体育の日) falls on Monday, October 12th. Known in English as “Health and Sports Day,” this day commemorates the anniversary of the opening of the Olympic games in Tokyo in 1964. The summer games were held late that year in an effort to avoid Japan’s rainy season, and began on October 10th. The national holiday was moved to the 2nd Monday in October in 2000 so as to give students and workers a long weekend.
Many schools celebrate with an undoukai (運動会), or field/sports day with mini-Olympic events such as races and relays, but also with group events like tug-of-war that can involve teachers and other members of the community acting as a team. At the end of the day, awards are given to groups rather than individuals, and are extremely practical in nature! I remember some of the most coveted prizes at the sports day I attended in Japan were dish cloths and trash bags. I came away with some plastic wrap and tissues, even though my team lost our event. The awards are meant to make sure that everyone is happy and feels like a winner at the end of the day, no matter what the results.
One odd thing any foreigner is bound to notice at an undoukai is the synchronized group calisthenics set to music performed at the beginning and end of the day’s activities. I saw this frequently during gym class at the school where I taught, but some companies in Japan still stretch together in the mornings, and again at 3:00 pm when everyone starts getting sleepy. It turns out that this is the “Rajio Taisou” (ラジオ体操 – Radio Exercise) which has been aired almost daily in Japan since 1928! The current version you can hear today features slow counting set to piano music and was recorded in 1951 by the Japanese government. It airs each morning on NHK at 6:30 am, and according to this article, about 20% of the population still does it each day, along with 76.4% of elementary schools in Japan. Below is a video of Rajio Taisou at a sports day in Japan.