The Problem with Undoukai (well, one of them)

The Japanese Undoukai was invented in the Edo Period, as a means of torturing autistic individuals for the amusement of the Shogun.

Wait, that’s not right.  Let me start again.

Japan’s Undoukai tradition was born out of the ashes of the Second World War, as a way to discreetly torture autistic people, in retaliation for their refusal to fly kamikaze planes just because everyone else was doing it.

Hold on, that’s not it either.

The Japanese Undoukai has its origins in the Heian Per…

Ok, ok I’ll stop.  Actually, from what I gather, the first “sports festival” on record in Japan was actually imported by the Americans in early Meiji, which is not nearly as interesting.  For the record, though, I still sort of believe that its founders harbored grudges against autistic people.

It’s not a stretch to say that the Undoukai ritual is a virtual hellscape for autistic children.  And, by extension, for anyone who loves them.

Perusing the Japanese blogosphere for like-minded individuals, I came upon this comprehensive list of reasons why children with developmental disabilities suffer disproportionate amounts of stress during Undoukai season, while some refuse to go to school altogether during this time.  That list is roughly summarized below.  (All embellishment and snark are mine alone.)

1.THE SOUND.  Whistles!  Megaphones! Drums!  Gun powder!  Shouts and Cheers!  This is the most obvious reason, I think, as many children with autism have extremely sensitive hearing.  All the blaring noise, however, is only the tip of the iceberg.

2. ATHLETIC ABILITY.  Kids with developmental disabilities often have delayed motor skills.  They also tend to lack the emotional maturity to process losing very well.  So let’s have them dance and compete alongside all the typically developing kids, and do it in front of the entire student body, faculty and extended family of the entire student body.  What could go wrong?

3. ALTERED ROUTINES.  The immense amount of preparation involved in staging a sports festival means that the the normal class schedule is basically massacred.  For autistic kids especially, sameness is an important source of comfort.   For example, 5 minutes ago my autistic son went into a full blown meltdown because he couldn’t find the spoon he usually uses to eat tofu.  I eventually found it under his bed, which is the only reason I will live to finish this post.

4. LARGE CROWDS make the children uneasy.  Thankfully, Covid precautions have given us a slight reprieve from such crowding.  Just kidding, no they haven’t.  This is Tokyo, where crowding has not actually been avoided since the very first state of emergency.  My kids’ Undoukais have still managed to be super crowded, despite shorter duration and limits on the number of family members who can attend(2 adults plus siblings under 10).

5. Witnessing OTHER CHILDREN SHOUTING, even if it is not directed at them individually, can be terrifying for kids with social anxiety.

6. Witnessing OTHER CHILDREN COLLAPSING, or vomiting due to heatstroke, can be traumatic for children with anxiety disorders.  This…I just can’t.  I have nothing to sa…wait, no, of course I do.  JAPAN!!!  HOW ON EARTH IS THIS CONSIDERED THE SYMPTOM OF A PATHOLOGY AND NOT COMMON SENSE!!!

7. Children have to repeat the SAME MOTIONS over and over, and they also have to SIT QUIETLY and watch all their peers perform and compete, without being able to move or do what they wish.  In other words, children with developmental disabilities have a low tolerance for boring ass shit.

8. They do not have the PHYSICAL PERSEVERANCE to sustain intense heat and continue marching anyway.  (Right.  See comments on #6.)

9. While standing on line they don’t like to be POKED or SHOUTED AT by other kids.  Because really, who would?  There is a tendency for children who fall out of the sitting posture to be prodded at or resented by other children.  This is because these other children obviously suck.  A lot.  Why aren’t we talking about their pathologies instead?

I would have found it hard to believe that #9 actually happens, if I didn’t see it with my own eyes just yesterday, at Little Prince’s Undoukai.  One of the activities he actually condescended to participate in, was a choreographed dance to a silly pop song.  To do so, Little Prince stood in a circle with all the other 3 and 4-year-olds in his class.  When the music started and the boogying began, my son quickly found himself rocking out in the center of the circle instead of on his proscribed line.   The teachers were totally ok with this, but one of the other boys was not.  The boy in question attempted to drag Little Prince back to his place on the chalk.

This did not go well for that other child.  So maybe, just maybe, Little Prince taught him a little something about how not to suck.  Probably not, though.

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