Group Gymnastics for Kids: Teamwork to Cultivate Growth, or Torture?

Autumn is the season when many schools in Japan prepare for field day. Relay races and ball games are just some of the sports held during the event. For many schools, the main activity of the day has long been kumitaiso, or group gymnastics. But critics argue that this traditional sport culture can be lethal.

Kizo Hisamoto, the mayor of Kobe City in western Japan, posted a message on Twitter last month saying, "To all education board members, school principals, and teachers at elementary and junior high schools: please have the courage to quit group gymnastics."

His public message came after 14 accidents, including bone fractures, occurred in the city's schools during kumitaiso practice for autumn sports festivals.
The mayor had asked the education board a month before that to review field day plans, but officials had decided to go against the appeal. They said that many schools had practiced for months under a fixed curriculum, and cancellation of the exercise could cause confusion.

Kumitaiso leads to fatal accidents

The Japan Sport Council says that 4,418 accidents occurred in fiscal 2017, either during practice or the actual kumitaiso performance.

The council began keeping records of accidents in 1969. Nine children have died and 99 have been left with disabilities since then.

The number has decreased dramatically since the government instructed schools nationwide three years ago to refrain from building difficult formations. But accidents, including fatal ones, continue to occur.

Experts point out that some of the exercises, such as the human pyramid and human tower, are especially dangerous.

A human pyramid collapses at a junior high school in Yao City, Osaka in 2015. Six students were injured.

Ryo Uchida, associate professor of educational sociology at Nagoya University, has spent years studying Japan's group gymnastics education. He says that at some schools, teachers still encourage students to try difficult formations, and that at least one junior high school made a pyramid with nine tiers on a field day last year. Uchida says the maximum load on children on the bottom tier could be about 150 kilograms.

A sense of accomplishment, unity, and...

Uchida explains that there are now many teachers who understand how dangerous group gymnastics can be. Kashiwa City in Chiba Prefecture decided to scrap group gymnastics at all of its elementary and junior high schools. Instead, it implemented dancing and other team activities.

But it's also true that there are still strong supporters of group gymnastics.

One elementary school teacher in Osaka told NHK that group gymnastics involves hours of team practice which give children a sense of accomplishment. He says this helps them grow. Though science may not quantitatively prove how effective the exercises are, he says the children's parents are happy with the physical and mental strength the children gain from the group work.

Other educators point out that the school gymnastics culture should be kept alive because the athletic demonstrations during field day are an important form of entertainment for the people living in surrounding communities.

Violation of children's rights?

The NPO Human Rights Now in Japan submitted a report in 2017 to a committee at the United Nations condemning the country's government for not taking appropriate measures to protect children's lives from the "problematic" practices. The organization said the kumitaiso curriculum is a clear violation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, a treaty which sets out the need to protect children from all forms of physical and mental violence, injury and abuse.

The UN committee compiled a recommendation earlier this year saying the Japanese government should do more to prevent school accidents. The secretary-general of the NPO and attorney Kazuko Ito says the recommendation should apply to kumitaiso practices. Ito says her organization will keep alerting the Japanese government of its dangers.

Group gymnastics in other countries

But children in other countries also get involved in group gymnastics. Cheerleading has been a popular sport for students in the United States.

People in Catalonian towns and cities in Spain succeeded in adding their human towers to UNESCO's list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2010. Small children, including those in pre-school, can also participate in the activity.

A human tower at a festival in Barcelona.

This raises the question: Why can't the gymnastics formations at Japanese schools also be accepted as safe?

Ryo Uchida of Nagoya University says that those countries also face problems. He says US high school girls have suffered severe injuries from cheerleading activities, and reports of injuries come from Spanish festivals as well.

But he explains that group gymnastics in Japan differ from those in other countries. He analyses that kumitaiso injuries occur because Japanese schools force children of all sizes and strengths to participate without proper preparation, rather than recruit those who are eager to take part. He also points out teachers who supervise kumitaiso have not been trained properly.

He says it's time for all educators to check again whether their current gymnastics curriculum is safe, and come up with the better ideas to prevent fatal accidents.