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Athlectic Autumn

This autumn has me attending three different all-day Sports Festivals, each involving hundreds of people. Activities range from old men rolling barrels with sticks, to water-pistol bearing teenagers, to babies being coaxed to pick up a fish toy and drop it in a bucket. Some can hardly walk - for advancement of age or lack thereof - but all of them participate. These community and school-centered events, with school-aged children as their focus, have obstacle courses, relays, and team games that inspire more laughter and cheering than competition.

The traditional Japanese autumn sports events have taken on increased importance in light of the rapid increase in overweight youth in recent years. Rises in childhood obesity and related health risks in every country caused the World Health Organization to declare obesity a global epidemic. In Japan, the number of cases of type 2 diabetes - a weight-related disease - in junior high school children doubled between the late seventies and early nineties. The number of obese boys in Japan increased nearly as much over a similar period, and while the increase was not quite as high for girls, studies indicated that the additional concern of "an alarming tendency toward underweight" was also an issue for this population. Lifestyle trends among children are clearly unhealthy.

While changes in the foods children are eating and the amounts consumed are primary factors in these trends, another crucial element is lack of exercise and lower rates of physical activity in general.

Julie Gerberding, Director of the Center for Disease Control (CDC) in the U.S., has called obesity "the new global threat," citing it as an "overt manifestation" of a passive lifestyle. This year, the CDC (a body of the U.S. equivalent of the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare) has established a Web site that supposedly encourages children to get physically active by having them create video game characters that play on the site's virtual playground. Visitors to the site can also mix video clips of kids doing sports. Of course, children who visit this Web site do all this virtual activity while sitting in front of a computer screen. They are not actually moving their bodies at all except to control the computer mouse. The entire concept is at first amusingly ridiculous, and then upon reflection, extremely disturbing. Try being a virtual sportsman at the site: http://www.verbnow.com

The action of Japanese local governments has been very different from this response of virtual-activity game creation. Traditional Japanese events promoting physical activity seem to have been expanded and supplemented with even more variety in recent years. Our municipal gymnasium started an annual "Get to Know Sports Day" about ten years ago, and it is now offered four times a year. Children come with parents or friends to use equipment ranging from ping-pong tables and mini-trampolines to hula hoops and basketballs. Participants can also try unusual sports, like curling. While it sometimes gets a little wild, with kids bouncing rubber balls off the balance beam and such, there is never anyone just standing around.

To give kids extra incentive to participate in their weekly activities on a more regular basis, our local outdoor activity center formed the "Exciting Attempt Club" this year. Children earn stickers for their membership card every time they participate in nature games, orienteering, wood craft, or other activities held weekly. Of course, once they are there for the organized acitivity, they can't help running around the green lawn and forest paths. Our daughter loves swinging on the rope hung from a tree limb and watching the big kids climb to the tree tops. Peals of laughter ring out as children scramble up and down the hillsides. Children who have low motivation may need the promise of a special prize for kids with ten participation stickers, but once there, everyone's off and running.

Yet encouraging children to be physically active is hardly a recent trend in Japan. Did strains of radio taiso, the Japanese exercise program broadcasted in the early hours of morning, wake you up this summer, too? Pre-dating WWII, the daily broadcasts are still popular with school-aged children. When I first moved to Japan, I lived close enough to the local shrine that sleeping through the short workout was not an option. I would stand at my window with a cup of coffee, having begrudgingly resigned myself to starting the day early, and watch the children go through the motions with a few straggling grandparents. Afterwards, they would naturally get caught up in catching cicadas or climbing up the wrong side of the shrine's ancient slide or simply chasing each other, shrieking and laughing in the early morning quiet.

At that time the activity struck me as immensely annoying and futile. Their teachers told them to participate in the daily exercises at that ungodly hour, while it was still cool outside, so they did. Yet it disrupted the morning quiet of the whole neighborhood, more so their households. How many mothers and fathers also had to rise early to prepare breakfast in time at least for the children's return? What was the point if the kids only swung their arms around and jumped up and down for a few minutes?

The point was inertia. "A body in motion tends to stay in motion," Newton tells us, and those bodies hurtling around the shrine grounds in the early morning sunlight had clearly been set in motion by the brief "radio exercise" broadcast. Similarly, the momentum of active school-aged children's habits will most likely have them "stay in motion" throughout the rest of their lives, as we know physically active youth are more likely to grow into physically active adults.

Of course the corollary is that "a body at rest tends to stay at rest," which is the trend for a growing population worldwide. Yet even if one wants to "stay at rest," it is not easy during Japan's Athletic Autumn. Even those who do not enjoy athletic competition are tempted by a variety of events designed to be all-inclusive rather than honing the skills of fastest and strongest. Events that require children to work together, like having five or ten people jump rope together, using one rope, emphasize teamwork over individual skills, laughing together and helping each other over sheer competitiveness. Games that require a variety of body types, where smaller players are carried by larger-framed supporters in competition, are also more inclusive than simple running races. Obstacle courses often "even the playing field" between the varied physical development rates of early adolescence and can be more fun for everyone as a race leader may suddenly succumb to the last obstacle, resulting in an initially slower participant taking the prize. At our school's Sports Festival this year, no one laughed harder than the star of the track team himself when the toddler's tricycle he was riding on tipped over mid-race, sending him sprawling into the sand while a less athletic student went on to win.

The phrase "sports no aki," literally "athletic autumn," encourages the transition from the dog-days of summer to a more active, healthy lifestyle. That body in motion will stay in motion, most likely all winter long and through all the seasons of life.
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