The nature, culture and living in a small village in Japan just after the last world war, reflected through the boy’s eyes.
Chapter 5 The sports festival at the primary school in rural area （1953）
Written by Y. Otsuki (Sendai, Japan)
Translated by Y.Otsuki (London)
“TEAM WORK in sports”: The most popular activity at the sports festival was the running race against different neighbourhoods, run by someone from each neighbourhoods and generations. The representatives from the village, that consisted of the valleys, hills, rice fields and forests, came from every generation, from teenagers to those, who were over 50 years old, a participant every 10years. The boy’s neighbourhood attended as well, but he was never elected for it as he was an outsider and well-known for not able to run fast. Supporters sat down to watch the race, and excited to see it. One of the favorite proverbs for the Japanese people is “Harmony is the greatest virtue“. It means that in Japan, as in other collective countries, individuals usually believe in plans and ideas agreed upon by a majority rather than their personal ones, even if they think they are better than the group’s. It also means that the majority tends to relentlessly persecute or ignore the dissentients or individual that is somehow different. The boy’s father was certainly from the village, but his mother came far from a city near Osaka, and the family came from Sendai (30miles north of the village), one of few big cities in northern Japan during the war, and that meant they had many different habits and quirks compared to the people in the village. As a result, they experienced the discriminations, even though they lived in the area, where the father side of the family was from. For the discrimination to have less severe, mother had to learn the dialect of the village and children had to wear the traditional clothes, kimonos, worn by the village people, not western clothes. Therefore, at the sports festival, the loud support by the village people, who excluded his family like this, was scary for him as if the crowd was trying to persecute him.
A typical example about Japanese people, who are easy to unite; marathon/running race is one of the most favorite sports to do and watch on TV or goes there. More than that, they are happy to watch a long distance road relay, called “Ekiden” on TV, or goes there to support them. In Ekiden, runners in each team run while carrying the cloth loop, like a baton in short distance relay race. Supporters watch the runners around the relay points carefully as well as being excited to see the winning and losing of the teams. Some runners show better performances than his past records for sake of his team’s victory. In unhappy cases, the runner would fall in ill, such as muscle spasm, because of the cold weather, dehydration, because of hot weather. But in Ekiden the responsibility of delivering the cloth loop to next runner makes his decision difficult, and he has to struggle with preceding steps. In worst case, he repeats fall/stand and fall/stand, and or claw, and this kind of behaviours will become the some great recollections for the supporters for a long time. This means that we are impressed by and enjoyed to see the strength and dedication for his responsibility as a team. Do you think whether such a behaviour of the supporters as sadistic?
GEOPOLYTIC Consideration of Team Play: Individuals to harmonise and unite into a team with strong responsibility, but sacrifice individual expressions. This is what the Japanese are impressed most. Such a disposition for them might be attributed to its geographic characters, according to some historians. That is, countries in east Asia/Oriental countries, including Japan, have been faced threats from China, such as invasions, colonisations and rebels as Korea and Vietnam were both colonised by China for a long time while Japan was attacked by allied forces of China and Korea twice in 12th century. These on 12th century were surpassed against Japan on its military power, but fortunately failed as typhoon came at the middle of these occasions. These made national superstition, that whenever Japan was under the great crisis/attack, “the god of weather” or “Kamikaze” in Japanese would come to save it. Besides, some historians maintain an opinion that Japan had a threat of invasion by China thousands of years ago, such as 1st or 2nd century. Japan as divided into small countries, governed by small tribes, having a territorial battle for each other at that time, which was somehow similar to an example, such as Italy. In the late 2nd century, once the certain information of the Chinese threat was brought to them, the tribes stopped fighting to prepare for it, and resulted to national unification. This opinion hasn’t been a common view yet, but can explain character of Japanese excellently, who easily make groups together and avoid conflicts.
BREADS in Japan: In the bread-biting race, we usually use the type of the bread, called “Anpan”, which is a round-shaped sweet bread, that contains the Azuki bean paste in the middle. It is one of the most popular breads in Japan. (“Pan” is the Japanese name for the breads, taken from “pao” in Portuguese.”) The breads were introduced by the Portuguese in 16th century, though it hasn’t become popular, and were only available for high ranking shogun warlords and their families. Since the end of 19th century, breads became more and more popular gradually, and now breads are eaten more often than ever before while rice is eaten far less. They do sell similar breads as in west, especially showing the admiration for the French breads, as well as their original ones, and the “Anpan” is one of these, invented by a baker in Tokyo in 1874. The Azuki beans has been eaten as the most popular Japanese sweets for thousands of years, in a soup or a paste for the rice cake (“Mochi”) on mainly for important celebrations. (Similar beans do exist in Korea as well, but is salty, and slightly strange for the Japanese.) There are many filling for the breads, such as curry, fried noodles, Korean Kimchi. Recently, a French bakery, “Gontran Cherrier” opened its new branch in Sendai. They sell new type of bread that contains a grilled ox tongue, which is the specialty of Sendai, and is very interesting that the French shop also showed the interest in the Japanese way of the fusion cooking.
The boy is running fast, and his heart feels like it is going to pop out of his chest. But he run and run. Fast! Fast! Fast!
Coming up to the corner, his upper body is pulled away and he tilts his body, his field of view tilting as well, almost making him fall down. But he run and run. Fast! Fast! Faster!
He suddenly notices the sound of footsteps, made by the other competitors behind him. He tries to put his legs forward as far and as fast as he can, but he does not feel that he moves forward even a bit as if a rope is pulling him back. But he run and run.
Fast! Faster! Faster!
The goal tape comes into his sight as he comes around the corner. The other competitor’s footsteps gain the volume gradually. His legs cannot move as fast as he wants them to. But he run and run.
Faster! Faster! Faster!
Just a little more running to the goal. The other competitors draw closer and closer, and he can hear their breathing down his neck. But he run and run. Faster! Faster! Fastest!
He can almost feel himself touching the goal tape. The other competitors are rushing behind him, just inches away. But he run and run.
Faster! Fastest! Fastest!
One more step to the goal. He can see seams on the tape just in front of him. Over his head, the sky view is turning around and around and spectator’s loud cheer whirls. He almost falls down. But he run and run.
Fastest! Fastest! Fastest!
“Oh, I did it!” Cutting the goal tape, the feeling is fantastic. I won!
Win! Win! Winner!
I won. However, did winning need to cause so much stress? For him, it was the first time for all these, to won at the sport festival, to run as fast as he possibly could, to feel stressful at the sports festival and to have a strong desire for not to lose.
That day, his primary school was having the annual sports festival under the autumnal clear sky. He won at the “loach carrying running race”, which was one of the activities and among the hardest one with the tricky obstacle, based on 200m (about 183 yards) running race.
That is, runners had to run while carrying a loach, which was taken from water in the buckets, placed at the middle of the course. Of course, if you dropped it you had to grab it again and run again to the goal. Several boys in the same class did this race. At that time, there was only one class for each year in this school.
“Loach” is a rod-shaped freshwater fish and its length is about 5 inches. This fish has a skin so slim that it is very difficult to grab and keep it with bare hands. Thus, carrying it while running, means extra fun for people to watch, especially seeing how runners struggle, trying to catch the fish and hold it while running.
As you might know, eel has similar physical characteristics as the loach, so it can also be used for this kind of race. But their population in rivers is much smaller than the loach, which means it is more difficult to collect the eels for this purpose. The eel is also much more expensive than loach, and people prefer to sell them to fish markets/restaurants, instead of the use for the school race. Moreover, eel is a lot much slimy and powerful than loach, which makes it almost impossible to grab and run while holding it.
By the way, there are small populations of people who take part in religious activities regularly in Japan, but almost all of us have an unconscious belief, a mixture of imported and indigenous religions, such as Buddhism from India via China and Shinto, indigenous belief. According to the Buddhism, we are forbidden to kill any living creatures. Christianity also forbids killing, in the Old Testament, which should mean killing humans only. On the other hand, it does concern all the fauna. Though I am not sure about the reason for this, because I am not an earnest Buddhist, it might state that every living creature has a mind and spirit. Meanwhile, Shinto teaches that every living thing, including plants, has spirit. Consequently, the Japanese, who believed in all of these belief said that you couldn’t eat any flora or fauna, and mustn’t take their lives. Then we introduced some compromises. For example, we had been officially, or rather religiously, forbidden to eat meats of domestic animals until about 100 years ago, but were allowed to eat fish, whale and vegetables. And we had to pray to the creatures for apology for killing them and appreciation for providing their lives for the meals.
We have various festivals, probably one every day somewhere in the country, and some of them originated from ceremonies of apology to killing plants and animals. Therefore playing with creature is worse than killing it. “Catch and release” method, popular in fishing for pleasure in western culture doesn’t suit our culture. That is, we think of “catch and release” method as one of more cruel activities towards animals, or more would “eat whenever catch” with praying.
In this sports festival, grabbing the loach means causing it more suffering, which is thought to be relieved by eating it, accompanied by praying. I would be happy, if you could understand the cultural differences between Japan and the West.
The boy had been the last one in any of the races since he entered the primary school. The main reasons for this were his inferior physical abilities, because of being the youngest and smallest of his class, and more importantly, stepping back at the sound of pistol signalling the start, by his fear of loud sounds. Of course, he worried about his slow running, and practised to find a way to run faster, by among others, imitating a boy who was able to run fast, but he wasn’t able to progress a lot. But this time, unlike all the others, he won the loach carrying race. He thought about the reason of his winning, as he always, due to his self-critical nature, reflected everything he did. The main reason for his good success was his skill of catching the fish. That is, while others were struggling with the fish in the bucket, he caught it instantly and could run right away. He could keep this advantage of not wasting time at the beginning until he reached the goal. And he was able to run while carrying the fish in only one hand without any problem when the others had to keep it with both hands while running, because of their poor skills in fish handling, which stopped them from running very fast.
Although he fully appreciated the great feeling of winning, it didn’t give him any confidence for the running races, and he had to accept that in all his time at primary school, with one exception, his second prize in “bread biting race”, he was going to be last.
The bread biting race is similar to the loach carrying one, a short distance race with an extra obstacle. That is, there is a gate within the breads hanging by threads from the bar at the middle of the course, instead of the loaches, and competitors jump up to the hanging breads and have to bite one without using their hands, and then run to the goal. As the breads are shook aimlessly by the winds and foreman is swaying the supporting bar, the participants cannot bite them easily, and their progress makes people laugh.
The boy was able to open his mouth while trying to see how the bread moved and was able to catch the bread much easier than others, and because of him not wasting time, he won the 2nd prize.
There is another one, called “candy biting race”, which is similar. There are candies scattered in white flour on the table in the middle of the course.
The competitors have to catch candies again without using hands. This is difficult beyond people’s expectations as they cannot use their eyes to search for the candies, and no one have ever practised for it. Thus catching any candy is completely accidental, not related to runner’s physical fitness or skill. Spectators/supporters enjoyed chatting with each other about their expectations and results of winners as they are incapable of anticipating results for this race. If a slow runner happens to catch a candy first, he is chased by other fast runners. He runs towards the goal as fast as he can, but the distance between him and others is rapidly shortened. Can he get away or will other get ahead of him? Supporters are watching in excitement. The race is a kind of handy-race with chance, instead of harming individuals by evaluating physical fitness. Furthermore, the runners search for the candies by stirring flour with their faces. This results in them having funny faces covered in flour, which brings another laugh from the supporters. This laughing is caused by known reputations of individuals, according to their power, personality, status, poverty or wealth, are turned temporally over by the flour. For example, rich mayor of the village ends up the last with a white face and it makes all the supporters laugh. That’s why this candy race is only suitable for adults. There is the comedy effect that removes to show the responsibilities of the works of the adults, in candy-biting race. That’s why it is funny when it has done by adult.
The sports festivals were/are held at primary schools, secondary schools and high schools all over the country once or twice a year, just like the school entertainment festival, presented in “The Japanese rustic life in 1950s, No.2”. At his primary school, the sport festivals were held in spring and autumn every year, and these were one of the highlights of the social events at the village. Almost everyone in the village went there with their lunch, and enjoyed to see the activities, performed by children, such as running race, dancing, the acts of imitating the cavalry battles, ball-toss games, tug-of-war etc., as well as games for adults, including the running race against the different neighbourhoods, folk dance and so on. One of most liked and exciting activities was the running race against the different neighbourhoods. As the boy was an outsider in the village, he couldn’t understand why they were so excited. At the lunchtime, all the children enjoyed eating with their family, talking about the most enjoyable moments of the morning part of the festival. However, none of his family was there, his mother was a teacher, his father worked far away and his sisters were much older than him, so he had to eat a cold lunch alone. So, he disliked the sports festival.