Saturday, October 6, 2007


Yesterday I attended an "undoukai", literally exercise meet, at my nephew's preschool in Kyoto. For those who haven't experienced an undoukai, it's an event for school kids to show their parents what they have been learning, in terms of athletics, at school. For non-Japanese, or perhaps just for anthropologists, the whole scene can be quite surreal.

An undoukai is full of pomp and circumstance, as most events in Japan are, that is fascinating in its ability to reinforce what has come to be called Japanese culture. I'm sure an "outsider" watching a similar event in America would be able to make similar observations. However, America has no analog for the undoukai, which makes it particularly interesting--but again,
this may only be anthropological curiosity.

The first thing I noticed at yesterday's undoukai were strings of flags of countries from around the world hung over the field where the event was taking place. I found this odd as the undoukai is a distinctly Japanese phenomenon that has absolutely nothing to do with international anything. The effect, however, is a sense of commonality through sport with the global community--the reality was that I was the only thing remotely "international" apart from the flags (and I was an oddity).

As passive objects, the international flags at the undoukai become "Japan-ized" through their visual appearance against ritualized performances that express the homogeneity of Japanese culture across space and time. Parents who have lived in the same neighborhood since they were kids reminisce about the time they did the very exercises they now consume as spectators--a sense of an enduring culture is inevitable, and not at all a false sense. However, one wonders when the international flags were first hung, offering a cultural innovation (or a cultural consumption?). Now the flags too have become a natural symbol of a Japanese undoukai (I saw the same flags while watching a popular cartoon on TV).

Anthropology hogwash aside, undoukai's are remarkable to an American who is not used to seeing communities come together year after year to relive and reinvent the same ritual. I don't remember sports ever being a part of my public education, and certainly don't remember sitting with neighbors to eat lunches that each family had prepared on their own. Unlike America, Japan is too small for each family to wall themselves into a large piece of property where those living next door can be avoided. People in Japan, or at least in Nagaokakyo, gather in neighborhood parks to play, chat, and renew the relationships that sustain them.

1 comment:

kelli alicia said...

"hogwash?" your time in Japan is already polite-i-fyin' your vocabulary.

But stop being so erudite already. Your making those of us who blog about the sad inanities of our little lives look even more pathetic.