07 May, 2017

Cross-cultural sporting experience

Here's a post I wrote in May 2011, yep, six years ago, when we first began attending inter-school track and field competitions in Tokyo with our eldest son:

Yesterday we spent all day at our 11 y.o.'s track meet. Throughout the day I couldn't help remember...those years when I was a participant, not a spectator at such events. And also on the differences between the way Americans seem to do school sport and the Australian way.

Australian schools, in my experience, generally have three different streams of sport going at school. 
  1. They have PE classes during school time, the number of which varies from school to school. This is compulsory for much of one's school career, or it was for me.
  2. Once a week they have an afternoon dedicated to sport or some other non-curricular activity. There is a mixture of interschool team sports as well as within-school options like Ten Pin bowling, cricket, netball, soccer etc. During that time I even participated in activities like chess, film appreciation (really - that is the first and last time I saw "Psycho"!) and Tai Chi. These options generally change every term, four times a year.
  3. Our high school had four different annual events that directly related in interschool events. They were the swimming carnival, athletics carnival (which involved track and field), cross country and ball games (the latter comprising of team events like captain ball, tunnel ball etc.). Each of these were all-school events where classes were cancelled, the first two being all day or day-and-a-half events. They were conducted as competitions between school "houses". A great deal of school spirit was involved in each these events, though many fellow teenagers chose to just be physically present, rather than spirited! These events, especially the first three, were primarily concerned with choosing the best athletes to represent the school in later regional events.
Our experience here within the international school arena in Japan is quite different. I don't know about other schools, but this is my understanding of CAJ's system.
  1. PE classes extend from Kindergarten through to Year 12. And more frequently than we (that is my husband and I) had in state schools in Australia.
  2. The elementary school has an annual Field Day. This is relatively non-competitive and encouraging event. It has no long-term goal such as selecting the fastest or highest or strongest for inter-school competition. Middle and high school have no such event. No swimming carnivals or all-school cross country events.
  3. The international schools have interschool competitions in various sports organised during out-of-school hours. These sports include basketball, volleyball, soccer, cross-country, track, field hockey and wrestling. They have three seasons - "fall", winter and spring. 
Here are some things I find strange about the system we find ourselves in:
  • The number three (above) competitions are totally extra curricular. You only "go out" for them if you want. The teams are selected from those who try out. I find this particularly strange for athletics - how do you know that you have the best athletes representing your school? How do you even know if you have your athletes doing their best events. 
  • No weekly sports afternoons. If you want to pursue a sport you do it in your own time. This makes it hard if you are struggling to achieve academically or struggling to get homework completed. Though I do remember that my high school inter school sports teams did sometimes have after school training.
  • They train very hard. High school teams train five days a week for two to three hours each day during their season. Middle school teams at CAJ are limited to three times a week. Even that was a lot when it was basketball training and it started at 6.30am! Consider that a number of students travel for over half an hour or an hour to get to or from school and there is a lot expected of those who take on sport.
  • It has taken a while, but early on terms like "Varsity" and "Junior varsity" were very confusing. For those who don't know. Varsity is the school's best team. Junior varsity is like the B team.
  • There are no age levels in the cross-country and athletics events. So our 11 y.o. was competing against all middle schoolers - some of whom are 14 or 15 years old (and looked it). Same for high school.
  • Finally on the comparison front, I don't ever remember driving for two and a half hours to go to a simple inter-school event. We did that yesterday to watch our son run and throw. It was only 36 km, but very orderly Tokyo traffic includes hundreds of traffic lights in that short distance.
Whoa, this is already a long post. My thoughts yesterday didn't just encompass the above. You see, I was a runner. I even was a part of Little Athletics club for a few years.

My thoughts yesterday roamed into sympathy for the longer distance runners (400m and above). Been there, done that. In sympathy for the hurdles runners who slammed into hurdles. I never did like that form of the sport. I flinched as people jumped over the high jump. I remembered how I used to "eat up" the track when I ran and how that feeling suddenly began to fade at around 14 years of age. That was a strange feeling. I remembered running in a school relay race against Cathy Freeman (famous Australian Olympian now). My claim to reflected fame!

At the end I remind myself that it is just different, not wrong. Another thing to get used to that is not particularly a Japanese cultural difference, but because we're in Japan and have our kids at an international school, that will be what we have to work with for the next X number of years.

Since that time we've gotten much more used to the way it's done here. But I still field questions like: "What sport did you go out for in high school?" Just yesterday I had a conversation with a Japanese man about how he did javelin, yes, just javelin, for about seven years during school and uni. That's how they do it in Japan. Each country has a different philosophy of education and it's good to remember, when we start to compare and contrast the systems, that no single system is the "right" system, there are good things to be found in them all.

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