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Olympic Tradition Celebrated Annually With Health And Sports Day In Japan

By Todd Kortemeier | Oct. 16, 2018, 3 p.m. (ET)


The Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 run July 24-Aug. 9, 2020, and while they may be two years away there’s a lot to learn on your quest to becoming the ultimate fan. Each Tuesday leading up to the Games, TeamUSA.org will present a nugget you should read about – from athletes to watch to storylines to follow to Japanese culture and landmarks – as part of “Tokyo 2020 Tuesday.” Follow along on social media with the hashtag #Tokyo2020Tuesday.

It is one of the defining principles of Olympism: “to encourage the regular practice of sport by all people in society.”

That philosophy is proudly carried out in Japan in the form of Health and Sports Day, a national holiday celebrated each year on the second Monday in October to coincide with the approximate anniversary of the Opening Ceremony of the Olympic Games Tokyo 1964. Known as Taiiku no hai in Japan, and in English informally as Sports Day, the holiday encourages all Japanese citizens to be active and maintain a healthy lifestyle. 

It is one of many lasting legacies in Japan from the 1964 Games. The Games remain a celebrated event in Japanese history, even as the nation has held two memorable Olympic Winter Games since (Sapporo 1972 and Nagano 1998) and is set to host its second Summer Games in 2020. Decades before the International Olympic Committee announced its Olympic Agenda 2020, with an emphasis on sustainability at the Games, the 1964 Games left a lasting legacy beyond sport.

Hosting the Games spurred infrastructure development, notably with the building of the first Shinkansen high-speed rail line, commonly known in English as the bullet train. Tokyo built new highways and subway lines still in use today. And the Games themselves live on in several venues that will be used again in 2020. 

But Olympism is about more than just Olympic-level sports. Events like Sports Day encourage participation in all sports, at all skill levels, by anyone and everyone in society.

First celebrated in 1966, Sports Day is now closely tied in with another Japanese athletic tradition in schools. Every school from elementary through secondary holds a Field Day, similar to track and field days in American schools, in which students participate in a wide range of sports and activities. Many schools choose to have their Field Day on Sports Day.

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Some of the activities will mirror the 2020 Games, like track and field. But most are uniquely Japanese like tamaire. Tamaire is a team sport; each team tries to get the most bean bags in a basket mounted on top of a pole. 

Even though the sports may not all be in the Games, any Field Day looks like a serious competition. There are even opening ceremonies as the students parade onto the competition field. Parents are often invited to watch and can sometimes join in on the fun, too.

Many of the sports played on Field Day are team sports. And indeed, Japan is a team-centric nation in which the greater good is emphasized over the individual. Mukade kyoso, or centipede race, is one example. Each team of students has their legs tied together so they must move and cooperate as one in order to move forward and finish first.

There is also odamakorogashi. Players take turns rolling a giant ball around a course of cones, relying on others to keep up the speed and momentum. Another ball sport is odama okuri. Instead of rolling the ball on the ground, the goal is to keep the ball aloft with a crowd of hands supporting it.

Anyone who has been to a Japanese baseball game knows that this is a nation taking its cheering seriously. American baseball fans can get loud, but Japanese cheering sections are more like European soccer, with die-hard fans cheering and singing throughout the game. Cheering is also important on Field Day, with students cheering on their classmates with drum-led songs.

And of course, in one of the world’s primary culinary destinations, there’s food. If there are any kids not too keen on sports, at least they can look forward to a tasty bento box lunch that Japanese mothers take pride in assembling for Field Day. The bento box is a common sight for lunch around Japan, but on this day, they are more elaborate, stuffed with sushi, seaweed snacks and other favorites.

In 2020, Sports Day will take on even greater meaning as the Olympic Games return to Tokyo. Those Games will no doubt leave their own legacy and traditions for the ensuing generations of Japanese athletes.

Todd Kortemeier is a sportswriter, editor and children’s book author from Minneapolis. He is a contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.