Friday, August 12, 2011

A Sticky Situation

Temple Valley, Yokohama, July 22 - That sound. There it is again. Pitter patter pitter patter. Now it's gone. Lifting my head to get a look at the clock, I see it's only a quarter after six and the sweat soaked pillow case clinging to the back of my neck drags me back to slumber again. Pitter patter pitter patter, the sound returns only this time with intermittent giggling. Then I remember. This is the sound of summer. The sound of little footsteps racing across the pavement that snakes around my home and up to the Bear Shrine just beyond.

I'll never get used to this, just the idea of it goes against practically every moral principal ingrained in me during my formative educational years. As a rule, summer vacation is for sleeping in and relaxing, with some notable exceptions like rising early to hit the beach before anyone else or to go fishing. It's been barely 18 hours since the school chimes rang to herald the dawn of summer vacation and kids across Temple Valley are up and jumping. That's jumping as in jumping jacks. 

The scene is a familiar one, played out in neighborhood shrines and parks across the archipelago. Known as rajiotaiso (radio exercise), kids and adults gather together to move their bodies in sync with the classic radio exercise program of the same name broadcast daily at 6:30 am. 

I can't really blame these kids though. The whole idea for rajiotaiso started in America. The brainchild of the Met Life Insurance Company, the program aired for a couple of years back in the early part of the twentieth century but never really took off until it caught the antennas of a couple of visitors from the Land of the Rising Sun. The pair, from a Japanese life insurance agency, were in the US on a fact-finding mission. Charged with bringing back ideas for raising Japan's life-expectancy rate, which was dismally low at the time, their discovery of this health-boosting radio exercise program was shear serendipity. The whole thing was music to their ears and now rajiotaiso is as Japanese as azuki bean pie.

It's really not all that bad and of course there are rewards that come with exercise. Kids are usually given a rajotaiso attendance card on the last day of school, often to be worn around their necks, that they bring with them to their local neighborhood morning exercise session. As a grade schooler, my oldest son, Ichiro, used to regularly don his attendance card necklace every summer to jump up and down at the crack of dawn with the other denizens of Temple Valley. He would dutifully get his card stamped every day he attended and after the two week "ordeal" was over he was rewarded with a five hundred yen (about five bucks) bookstore gift certificate! Not too bad for two weeks work. The kids in Temple Valley have actually gone soft over the years. When Ichiro's mother was a school kid here, rajiotaiso lasted all summer long.

There was one year the adults in charge of the Bear Shrine morning exercise romp decided to mix things up a bit. One of the folks overseeing operations suggested it might be fun for the kids to get an assorted pack of goodies instead of the usual boring old gift certificate. Another adult in the group, who had just become a member of the newly opened Cosco food and more wholesaler, knew the perfect place to purchase the items all at a rock-bottom price.  

That was the year my niece, Flower Bud, ate an entire pack of Elmer's glue sticks. It was an easy enough mistake for the fourth grader to make. A lot of the items sold at Cosco were from the US and hence unfamiliar. The white Elmer's glue sticks, bearing the Elsie the cow logo had all the earmarks of a dairy product. Maybe it didn't taste like any cheese she had ever eaten but it didn't have any noticeable adverse effects on her either. After all school kids in the U.S. have been eating Elmer's glue for decades. Now this great American culinary tradition has joined the ranks of that other famous cultural import, rajiotaiso. Only time will tell if it too will stick.

Here is the televised version of rajiotaiso aired daily by Japan's public broadcaster, NHK.

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