Anarchism In The School Sports Undokai In Japan

If you are a parent in Japan and you have attended your child’s undokai (運動会) or school sports day, then guess what: You’re an anarchist.

When I first mentioned this idea that the undokai system was an example of anarchism to a group of Japanese people in a talk I did in Tokyo radical centre Cafe Lavanderia, they reacted with surprise: ‘No, the undokai system comes from Japan’s military past. We don’t like it.’ That is understandable but I think that’s an example of a ‘flash that blinds us from seeing beyond’ to paraphrase the legendary Gandry Macallan. I also noticed a debate about it on the site of well known activist, Debito, in which undokai came under a lot of criticism as exercises in conformism and group pressure. The militaristic aspect may indeed have influenced the start of the undokai system, but that is not the purpose of it now. For those not familiar, here is a quick explanation: the Japanese undokai school sports system started in the 1870s, as an example of the western influence that characterized the Meiji era.

According to Undokai to Nihon Kindai (“Sports Day and Modern Japan”) by professor Shunya Yoshimi of the University of Tokyo, the first such event was in 1874 at the Imperial Naval College at the suggestion of an admiral from the British Royal Navy, Adm. Archibald L. Douglas. At that time, the association of sport and the military was strong in the UK. Hence the famous saying, that the Duke of Wellington might have said (or he might not have!): “The battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton.” It was thought that sports were a useful way to build up discipline, a competitive spirit and – somewhat paradoxically – good team co-operation. Such sports event were also held at Sapporo Agricultural College and at what was to become the University of Tokyo. They were then introduced to high schools, junior high and elementary schools (gymnastics was made compulsory in elementary schools).

So the martial origin of the undokai seems clear. But then many things that are now a normal part of life have origins heavily influenced by the military, such as the internet you are reading this on! We should note that the undokai days started long before the 1930s fascist form of militarism and there is no mention at all now (and not for more than 60 years) of any active militarism at undokai events. Yes, some old style songs are played and certain older members might associate those with extreme nationalism, but the connection is not specifically made to the young kids involved and I’m sure than 99% of them have little to no idea of the association.

As to the events themselves: they normally occur in the autumn (September/October), or in the spring (May/June). October 10 is a popular date because of the association with the opening ceremony of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. A lot of preparation goes into the events, by the teachers, kids and some parents. During the events the principal will normally make a speech, and various games will be played. Some rather serious races, others silly and fun. Such as the tug of war, relay races for different age groups, ‘kumitaiso’ (groups of kids forming pyramids, etc), ‘Tama-ire’ (tossing small beanbags into a basket on a high pole, often with various other obstacle aspects involved). Sometimes the parents also have a race or take part in silly games. During lunch break there is a mass, but rather tidy and well arranged, picnic around the playing fields. The kids normally eat with their families and this often means 3 generations huddled together on the infamous blue sheets: kids, parents and grandparents.

So, before saying why I think these undokai events are a form of anarchism, what do I mean by ‘anarchism’? Obviously, I don’t mean violence and bombs and chaos. That is not what anarchism means – period, full stop, owari. It is a system of organising society around the idea that we don’t need a strict hierarchy of bosses and leaders with fixed authority, telling us what to do. We can organise things ourselves, as equals who volunteer to work together, who co-operate to get things done. There is little or no profit aspect involved. It’s a non-capitalist type of system in which there is no elite of rich owners taking much of the end product of your work. Instead, work is organised along the lines of workers’ co-operatives, where the rewards/products/benefits of the work are shared equally among those that do that work. So we have no bosses ordering people around, no elite rich owners taking the profits of your work, no corrupt politicians in a distant parliament deciding things on our behalf. Instead, we take responsibility ourselves, organise our own work places (and our leisure too). We work hard, share the benefits of that work, treat others as equals and do all this with the aim of making a good life for ourselves, our families and our communities. That’s anarchism(Oh what a summary! There is so much more to say, but let’s leave that for another time, ok? Good).

So, how is the Japanese undokai sports day anarchistic? The main purpose of such events is for the community to get together and have fun, it’s a local area community activity which functions to connect people in a pleasant way, as a group of equals. That is very much anarchistic. Anarchism’s basic unit of operation is such activities and meetings and groups. There is a greater focus on the local area as a unit of organisation of work, leisure, education, health, etc. The people within it are equals who work all that stuff out for the good of the community. Not without some trouble, argument and mess, of course! But, one way or another, they work it out and manage.

The way the undokai events are organised are anarchistic in that there are no strict hierarchies of bosses ordering people around and deciding things in whatever way takes their fancy. Sure, the principle of the school is there to make speech, but it’s mainly symbolic. Take that speech away and the activity would be 99% the same. Or replace it with a speech made by an elected community representative. Also, yes, the event is part of the teachers normal responsibility, it’s a paid working day for them and they have to attend as part of their role as teachers (but they get the next day off to make up for that). But what we see in their dedication and hard work is more than just ‘doing the job’. We see a genuine concern for playing their role in that community, for doing the work as part of a team where mutual respect is high, where everyone mucks in an does their bit. And that, again, is a key aspect of anarchism.

You might say ‘But the teachers drill the students a lot, they have to follow orders while practicing.’ Yes, the teachers guide the students in learning such things as the ‘kumitaiso.’ But anarchism is not chaos, remember? The circle in which the A of anarchism is placed means ‘order.’ There is plenty of order in anarchism, plenty of organising. It’s a question of how it’s organised and for what purpose. For profit of the elite or for the pleasure of the people? In anarchism teachers teach and experts can carrying on ‘experting’ all over the place. Knowledge, skill and experience are valued and some people will lead and guide where appropriate. It’s just that there are no fixed, strict forces of authority that have to be obeyed, no questions, no questions! But if some event needs organising then there will be temporary ‘leaders’ who guide others in how to do it. People who have done it before and know how pole A fits into pole B for the putting up the tents, where the chairs are kept, how the loud speaker works, etc. But those guides do not boss others around like camp commanders. They direct others within a general atmosphere of mutual respect and equality, and that, as far as my experience goes, is how the undokai events are organised. Of course, no one calls it anarchism, but in the actual aspects of how it’s done, it is a good example of how anarchism operates.

As well as the teachers, the mothers and the fathers come together, very early in the morning – on their day off! – on a voluntary basis, and put up the tents, blow up the balloons, set up the chairs, etc. I know, I’ve joined in on this several times. With no set leaders directing the process, other than someone who knows how the tent poles connect, or who has a van to take the stuff there. Why do they do all that ‘work’ with no pay? In order to help out in the community, and to be good parents to their kids. Of course this now brings up a key issue: ‘Aren’t they just pretending to be good members of the community? If they didn’t go it would look bad. It’s basically conformism.’ That’s a good point. Some may indeed find it annoying or even repressive to ‘have’ to join in on such community events. But this aspect does not mean the undokai system is not anarchistic in nature, it simply recognises that an anarchist system would have that issue to deal with, as part of the inevitably messy business of organizing any complicated group. Anarchism is not a utopia, its not a perfect system – it’s just a better one.

Another key point: in the undokai process there are no big companies involved, no coca cola sponsorship, no mitsubishi logos on everything, etc. In fact there is almost no profit aspect whatsoever. It has not been ‘monetised’, like so much of life has. Therefore it’s a rare example of a community activity, that millions take part in every year, that has not (yet) been polluted by corporations. It’s not done for profit, it’s done for fun. Of course people buy food from nearby shops for lunch, or get a new blue sheet to sit on, but no tickets are sold, no one has to pay to get in. It’s not televised with some fee. It’s not a commercial space. It’s an area that feels like community property, that belongs a bit to everyone who has a kid from that area.

In fact you don’t even need to have a child there. If you just felt like wandering in, leaning against the climbing frame and cheering for the relay team, fine. Enjoy! Just be a decent, co-operative, member of this community and you are as welcome as anyone else. Very anarchistic. Of course, in Japan it’s unlikely that hordes of people who don’t have any kids in the school will flood in an take up all the space, so that obachan has nowhere to sit. But why? Because they respect the order of the community which polices itself based on mutual respect, which aims at having a nice fun day, with everyone getting on. How anarchistic of them!

Some may say ‘Hold on, you are just describing obvious things of normal life, not anarchism.’ What this means is that much of the ordinary ways we conduct ourselves in everyday life ARE anarchistic. Which somewhat puts paid to the myth that ‘anarchism is a nice ideal, but it’s not realistic.’ It is realistic – you do anarchistic things everyday. You don’t CALL them anarchism, but what matters most, the name you put to it, or the actual reality of the actions?

So, what we have in the undokai school sports days are almost leaderless, profit-less associations of equals, who come together, for the most part on a voluntary basis, to organise a community event for the sake of enjoyment and the sharing of community spirit. If that is not anarchist then nothing is.