This article originally appeared in the March 2023 issue of CONNECT.
Chloe Holm (Ehime)
I hadn’t felt the spray of schoolyard pebbles stuck in my shoes, the welts from half-deflated soccer balls flung with surprising strength, or heard the shrill glee from the accompanying announced schoolyard winners since my own time in elementary. And even then, I had forgotten the unbridled joy that explodes from newly victorious backyard game champions. From an organized, school-wide cops and robbers match, to a sly bout of janken (rock, paper, scissors) slipped in the halls, I have had the delightful experience of witnessing, and participating in, many backyard recess games as an elementary school ALT.
As much as I enjoy the nostalgia of schoolyard game classics such as tag and, my personal favorite, capture the flag, these games can contain the same competitiveness and intensity associated with the Super Bowl or the Olympics. Sometimes, being the sole ALT can feel as if you were transported to the worlds of Squid Game, or Alice in Borderland (without the gruesomeness, thankfully). With little English instruction, and virtually no patience or time to explain anything to you, participating in recess games can feel like the ultimate test of figure-it-out-or-get-left-behind mentality. And while, at times, it can be difficult to transfer the limited knowledge you possess of games you played more than a decade ago, there’s nothing more rewarding than winning your first game of dodgeball with ten other third-graders screaming victorious at the top of their lungs.
Therefore, as an elementary school ALT now experienced in the craft of surviving the chaotic onslaught of schoolyard games, I have taken it upon myself to learn these rules of combat and better prepare myself, and others, for the full frontal assault that is the recess experience.
The timeless and worn-out classic. You will surely be asked to play this game numerous times in the day. Rest assured, the rules are usually straightforward enough for the bumbling foreigner to keep up with—that is, until the small munchkin weaving around you creates variations that can make it feel as senseless as a game of Dutch Mao. The main difference from American tag games is mainly in the start: the person who is “it” is instead called the oni (demon).
This demon will cover their eyes, count to ten, and then it’s a free for all as the demon (most likely you—just a part of the job) will proceed to chase, grapple, and dive for the screaming kids as even more join in on the torturous fun.
Pro tip: Make a devil’s bargain with that one kid who’s impossible to catch—convince (or bribe) them to be the oni and they can unleash all their energy during the rest of recess. I have no doubt they will agree to this bargain and it’ll give you a much needed breather.
Additional pro tip, recruit one of the sidelined teachers and have them be the “big oni boss” (AKA the glorified replacement). Nothing wrong with sharing the energy that you haven’t had since you were a fourth grader yourself.
Cops and Robbers (keidoro)
The similarities to games back home with this childhood game was also very much appreciated. As with all forms of games, procedures, and general doings in Japanese culture, the opening and rules instruction were extremely formal compared to the chaos of an elementary school.
My school had a school-wide game of cops and robbers where all the students (and teachers) participated. The lead teacher stood at the front of the soon-to-be bandits and dolled out the instructions, to which the controlled (for now) chaos listened intently, quietly biding their time, plotting the best starting position and where to sprint to first. The children waited patiently in curated rows and only split with the tone of the whistle.
Once that blew, it was the usual chaos I’d anticipate from any American school, pure childhood glee and struggling groans from teachers. Cops wore red caps, robbers wore white, and the whole schoolyard was the playing field with one crudely made circle in the middle being the “prison.”
We teachers (cops) did our best to grab and capture the robbers in the alloted time, and when it became too exhausting, assumed a passive guard position. If you can remember how cops and robbers was played as a kid, then you should have no problem translating it to the Japanese schoolyard.
Hide and Seek (kakurenbo)
As one of the more straightforward games, this is, thankfully, a reprieve to some sort of universal similarity among recess games. Sticking with the demon theme, someone (the ALT) will be dubbed the oni and proceed to count to ten while the children scatter.
Just remember these three phrases: Mo ii ka? (Are you ready?) To which you will hear the reply Mo ii yo! (Ready!) or Mada dayo! (Not yet!). Search anywhere and everywhere in limits, including under curtains and under the gym stage where you are bound to find some sneaky chameleons.
On par with the intensity of the final match in a sports anime, I can say, with full assuredness, you do not know fear until you have participated in a Japanese elementary school’s game of dodgeball. Beyond the name, little experience with this game in American schools can prepare you for the 4D chess/boxing match these children play.
For general game mechanics, the most similarities I’ve discerned are the most basic: split into two teams; an initial toss up for starting control; crudely drawn game lines show the boundaries; catch opposing balls when you can; throw at the opposing team; dodge.
Unfortunately, that’s as far as similarities go. Thinking I understood basic dodgeball rules, I was greeted with an unpredictable assault from all sides: children flanking me, sneak attacks from behind, merciless attacks on the (clearly) confused adult.
I learned an important lesson in this game: trust no one. Already confused from the lack of English explanation of the rules and from the consistent strategy jargon spewing from the eight and nine year olds, prepare yourself for this assured chaos, akin to being asked to navigate through an infinity maze, blindfolded.
In Japanese dodgeball, there is no relief of understanding from the constant changing of sides, the back and forth of teammates clashing and shifting spaces, and so the best advice I have is watch your back and not to trust anyone you see on your sides, or who you think is on your team.
Don’t try to count the outs and scoring; the goobers will be scrutinizingly keeping track and so, your only objective is to stay alive long enough to be given a pitiful “jouzu!” (good job).
Remember, your enemy knows more than you do in this game, and the goal here is to avoid becoming the foreign punching bag. The exception: anyone in your box can (almost always) be trusted, so stick with them when you can.
I would say, if you are one of the few who can survive this dodgeball deathmatch, you truly are a keeper as a teacher.
Rock Paper Scissors (Janken)
Highly regarded as the sole law of the land, Rock Paper Scissors matches hold a supreme ruling in school and recess that little else compares to. Think of coveted baseball games, think of famous (or infamous) sports days, and then think bigger than that and maybe you can understand the gravity with which Rock Paper Scissors matches are held in Japan, starting from the first age they can form the hand motions.
I believe rock paper scissors matches to be a universally shared experience for all teachers in Japan, regardless of the level or ages of kids, but in elementary school the game can come from any direction and at any time of day. So, it’s best to be prepared.
Rock Paper Scissors is universally played similarly enough, but it’s important to keep up with the speed and scale of it here; an entire class of kids can and will play it at once and will not wait if you fall behind, so be fast with it and follow their leads. In English, the kids will say “Rock, paper, scissors, 1, 2, 3!” and release after that (not on “shoot” for anyone else who grew up with that phrasing).
Some tricks to look out for: I was once baited by a particularly clever fourth grader who subliminally suggested moves to me. Holding his hand in a fist, I didn’t even think about my throw down of paper. But at the last minute, as I threw with subconscious assuredness, he switched, throwing, instead, scissors, and beating me. He smirked a devilish smile at me, the ALT, properly getting outsmarted by a nine year old. Get used to it, it happens a lot.
These games and sports are a way of living the Japanese school experience here, with dodgeball being the most brutal awakening of differences in sports, and rock paper scissors remaining the school champion of schoolyard games. Besides the utter craziness unleashed in a Japanese dodgeball game, the main difference really boils down to the level of formality with which games and sports are conducted here in comparison to their counterparts in the U.S. Whether it be a national speech by the prime minister or a game of cops and robbers, Japan holds their procedures to a formal standard that is starkly different from what I’m used to. Does it give me a chance to prepare myself for the onslaught? Yes. Is it incredibly formal and hard to follow? Also, yes. And that’s a part of being an elementary ALT—being able to figure out where you fit in the formal proceedings before a match and (maybe) figuring out the basic rules of dodgeball after being assaulted too many times in the back.
Chloe Holm is a first year ALT living in Ehime. She is also the AJET CONNECT Magazine’s Travel Section Editor. On her days off, you can find her trekking to the movie theater two hours away or binging Netflix at home with plenty of snacks. Her favorite movies are 9 to 5 and Skyfall.
Featured image photo credit: Laura Rivera on Unsplash