In the last few weeks, I was invited to the HPE (health and physical education) festival, or “Undokai” in Japanese, twice in the western and eastern Bhutan. In late September, Paro College of Education hosted their first Undokai event. The students of B.Ed (Primary), with guidance from the faculty members including a JICA volunteer working there as a HPE instructor, planned all the programs. They succeeded in bringing Bhutanese contexts into the Undokai concept of Japanese origin. It was one of the most creative events I have ever seen.

A week later, in early October, Gongthung Middle Secondary School in Trashigang hosted their first Undokai at their school ground. The students running barefoot reminded me of my good old days in rural Japan. Zero-waste principle strictly applied and the organizer set up a clean-up interval from time to time during the half-day event. Gender-sensitivity was also observed as the organizer prepared a special program for mothers and female school teachers. The principals from neighboring schools, who were also invited and witnessed the event, told me they would also like to introduce a similar program as it could enable mass-participation: students, parents, teachers, and local residents in the same community.

Both events were organized at the schools where a JICA volunteer, or a JOCV, has been stationed as an HPE instructor. In fact, the JOCV first brought the Undokai concept to their schools and facilitated the preparation process. On the day of the event, other JOCVs as well as their counterparts, also gathered at the host school and supported the program management by the teachers. 

In fact, Undokai has been a conventional tool among the HPE volunteers since late 2000s. But it was just two years ago that the then-existing HPE volunteers decided to place Undokai as their priority activity to collaborate with each other. They first started with Undokai in the east at Trashigang Middle Secondary School and Kidhreykhar Middle Secondary School. As of now, JOCVs have supported Undokai events at nine places across the country, even at a school where there was no JOCV assignment.

We, the Japanese, have grown up with a bunch of Undokai events. We say, “Autumn is for sports,” and most Undokai events are concentrated in the months of September and October. We usually spend three years in kindergarten, six years in elementary school, three years in junior high school, and another three years in senior high school. At every level, there is an Undokai event and we experience fifteen Undokais altogether before we advance to college. In addition to the events in the formal education system, there are community Undokai organized by local residential welfare association, and corporate Undokai organized by proprietors or labor unions. When I was living in the suburbs of Tokyo before I joined JICA Bhutan, I used to participate in three different Undokais a year: elementary school, junior high school, and community-led. It was a good opportunity for me to get to know other parents and community members. It was one of the most valuable tools to have stakeholders feel the sense of belonging to specific communities. 

I was born in a rural village, as a son of a family of rice cultivators and limestone miners. Parents and grand-parents used to spend most of their time in their paddy fields or limestone mine. Undokai was a special occasion for them to come and see how their kids had grown up, and kids had been looking forward to the event and practiced hard during the event preparation. The event lasted from 9am to 3pm with one-hour lunch break. Mothers used to prepare lunch boxes and bring them to the school, and we used to spread the leisure sheet and enjoy the lunch together with the whole family.

Undokai was full of attractive programs. There were not only individual athletic competitions, team athletic competitions and cheerleading competition, but also non-competitive programs such as brass band performance and coordinated group gymnastics. The event was not only for the limited number of high-performing athletes. Every single student played a certain role to show and was able to have fun.

After I became a father of three children, I have participated in the Undokai at their elementary school twelve years in a row. Parents nowadays seem to be even much crazier about the event than the past, and the attendance usually outnumbers participating students. In the early morning, you can see another battle over the best seats to watch their kids’ performance. It was a valuable opportunity for fixed-point observation as parents could see the development of the physical ability as well as cooperativeness of their own kids, as well as other kids in their neighborhood. Dads also have to participate in the programs such as tug of war and obstacle race, sometimes together with their kids. Poorly performing dads must bear the blame of their children in the same evening back home. Actually that was one of the reasons I have made efforts to stay in good shape. School graduates also come and voluntarily support the program management. It was functioning as a school reunion.

The JICA HPE volunteers have tried to introduce this fun event to Bhutan for the last few years. And some hosting schools have already realized the potential of Undokai as a mechanism to promote mass-participation and strengthen ties among the stakeholders around the school and the local community. 

This weekend, on Saturday, October 27, Katso Lower Secondary School will host another Undokai event near the Haa town. This is their second event following the first one in October 2017. In the initial stage of their event preparation, I have asked the school officials and dzongkhag administration office to open the event to the local community as well as tourists coming from other places like Thimphu and Paro. There will be a program open to the general participants as well. There will be a sales counter of the local products. The dzongkhag administration will offer village homestay program for visitors. 

Come one, come all!!

Contributed by Koji YAMADA

Chief Representative, JICA Bhutan Office