All-consuming school clubs worry foreign parents


Special To The Japan Times

When a friend or neighbor’s child starts junior or senior high school, after offering their congratulations, Japanese will invariably ask, “So, which school club did he/she join?”

Teenagers and club activities, commonly known as bukatsu or kurabu, go together as naturally in Japan as sushi and wasabi. Indeed, many members of today’s older generations look back on their club activities with nostalgia.

However, something that most Japanese parents accept as a normal and desirable rite of passage in their child’s development can leave foreign parents quaking in their boots at what lies ahead.

Twenty-eight foreign parents with children in Japanese junior or senior high schools participated in a written survey for this article, sharing their family’s experiences. Almost all reported some degree of anxiety about bukatsu when their oldest child entered junior high, with the effect on family time and the level of commitment being the most frequently cited concerns.

Heather from Australia had mixed feelings when her daughter entered junior high school last April and joined the kendo club.

“I think bukatsu has the potential to teach children a lot of things, but a lot of this is lost in over-practice, the desire for perfection and in power relationships,” she says.

Sports clubs typically demand five or six days of practice a week, after school and on weekends and sometimes even before school. Jas from India, one of a handful of fathers in the survey, laments the fact that he barely sees his eighth-grade daughter since she joined her junior high school tennis club.

“Weekends had been our time to hang out as a family,” he says, “but she’s out the door with practices and tournaments even on Sundays. I miss her!”

A mother of three teenagers, bukatsu veteran Catherine from the United States was shocked at the devious tactics employed by junior high sports coaches to extend practice time.

“They would simply call it something different, like ‘community practice,’ and this way the kids could practice for longer periods than the school rules allowed,” she explains.

Foreign parents used to taking their children back to their home countries on vacation face a difficult decision from junior high, when club practices extend into long vacations. Some schools even plan summer gasshuku, or camps, when the whole club and the coaches go away for a few days.

Last year Mich only managed a scant week’s trip back to Canada due to her younger son’s practice sessions for the soft tennis club.

“The coach said it was fine to take time off for family events, but he was only in seventh grade then,” Mich says. “We won’t be taking any overseas vacations this summer because he doesn’t want to miss any bukatsu.”

Renee has a son the same age that also plays soft tennis. While initially very anxious about the impact of bukatsu on annual trips to see her family in the U.S., she was pleasantly surprised.

“We took a trip last summer and will do so again this year,” she says. “The school has been very understanding and my son has not been teased for missing practices.”

In general, junior high schools expect children to pick a club upon entering the school and stick with it. Those with no interest in sports, or who want a more relaxed schedule, typically choose a cultural club like art, science or cooking, that doesn’t meet as often.

Quitting your club is usually frowned upon and is rather sardonically referred to as kitaku-bu (going home club). Parents in the survey whose children quit club altogether reported having to jump through hoops to have the move sanctioned. Tiiu from the U.S. and her husband had to endure several meetings with the coach when her older daughter decided to quit her junior high school volleyball team after growing weary of being bossed around by older teammates.

There seems to be something about girl’s volleyball. Another American mother, Ruth, reports having to fill out a pile of papers in order to have one of her twin daughters quit the junior-high team after developing chronic knee pain from over-strenuous practices.

“It was also sad to see how those who remained in the club gave her the cold shoulder and sort of rejected her for quitting,” Ruth recalls.

While foreign parents generally want to see shorter practices, less time spent on each activity and more flexibility in allowing students to combine multiple activities during their teenage years, many have also developed an appreciation of the merits of bukatsu.

“When my kids were younger, I was totally against it, but now I’m not,” says Rachel, a New Zealander. “In my experience, teenagers seems to spend most of their down time staring at a screen of one kind or another, so bukatsu is definitely good for their health and socialization. Junior high school clubs also keep kids off the streets at a very vulnerable time in their lives.”

In a similar vein, Atsushi Nakazawa, assistant professor at Hitotsubashi University’s Graduate School of Social Sciences, notes that during the late 1970s and 1980s, Japanese schools started seeing sports bukatsu as a useful tool to prevent student delinquency. Nakazawa has done extensive research on the history of Japanese sporting bukatsu and has published books on the topic.

“From 1945 through to the ’50s, club activities spread throughout schools and were promoted as a democratic symbol of freedom, in contrast to the militaristic approach of the war years,” he says. “Then, in the years leading up to the 1964 Olympics, schools focused on sports in which Japan was strong, resulting in limited opportunities for non-elite student athletes. The government readdressed the issue by expanding the range of sports offered after the Tokyo Olympics and encouraging all students to join in.”

Finally, as Japan became wealthier and the values of the younger generation shifted, the idea of “discipline though sports” became popular with educators in the late 1970s, and that mindset remains largely unchanged today.

According to Nakazawa, while some 70 percent of junior high school students choose a sport, by high school, sports club participation drops to about half.

“There are two main reasons,” says Nakazawa. “First, the level ramps up at high school and less-skilled students find it hard to make the team, so they naturally turn to nonsport clubs or outside activities, such as part-time jobs. Second, high schools tend to offer a wider variety of bukatsu, with the students often taking charge of activities themselves, with little guidance required from teachers.”

Helen from Britain has a son in the high school rock band. While he didn’t enjoy the petty rules that characterized his bukatsu experience in junior high school, he loves it now.

“He has a proper rock band with studio sessions and live shows in various places,” Helen explains. “It’s the most important thing in his life, he says!”

For some high school students, however, the club becomes so omnipresent that they are required to live away from home, in a school dormitory. Margarite from the Netherlands has seen two sons follow this route with their school’s highly competitive volleyball club. All the practice paid off for her older son, now at university, who became a national beach volleyball champion in 12th grade.

The flip side, says Margarite, is that such students can be slow to develop social skills when bukatsu takes up so much time. “They are a little late in developing a view of the world and understanding how you behave in society.”

Australian mother Melissa understands only too well how bukatsu can permeate into every spare waking moment of a teenager’s life. Her younger child is a member of the high school dance club and practices not only mornings and evenings, but even at lunchtime most days.

“Generally I think kids doing sport is good, but why can’t Japan get the hang of moderation?” asks Melissa. “Basically they are training them to be great salarymen — work 18-hour days without complaining and without having another life.”

In September last year, a cellphone video of a high school volleyball coach from Hamamatsu repeatedly slapping a boy went viral after being posted on YouTube. Corporal punishment has been illegal in Japan for 50 years, yet even as they celebrate Japan’s successful bid for the 2020 Olympics, officials seems at a loss to know how to deal with the sordid underbelly of this country’s sports culture, where coaches routinely expose elite athletes to verbal and physical abuse in the belief it spurs them to greater efforts.

Concerned about these trends, the Sports and Youth Bureau at the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology formed a study group to look into improving the monitoring of club activities in the nation’s schools.

“We gathered a panel of experts in the educational, sporting and legal fields and produced a set of guidelines for schools and coaches in May last year, which have already been distributed to schools,” says Yutaka Takemura from the bureau’s Physical Education Department.

Spare a thought for the coaches, who are usually teachers at the school. While the PE teacher coaching the baseball team or the music teacher leading the brass band might be no-brainer choices, many of the teachers have little experience or even interest in the activities they might end up leading.

Typically, younger male teachers are expected to take on the most demanding clubs. Australian Kimmy’s husband is a high school science teacher but has charge of one of the school’s most popular sports clubs, leaving precious little time to spend with his wife and two small children. “The demands of coaching and attending tournaments don’t go hand in hand with family,” his wife says ruefully.

Ironically, by the time Kimmy’s husband moves up in seniority and hands over coaching chores to younger teachers, his own children will probably be teenagers busy with their own bukatsu.

Getting insider information on clubs can be difficult before a child actually starts at a school, but Elena from Italy highly recommends parents do this if they want to avoid nasty surprises later on. Elena’s eighth-grade daughter, a member of the dance club, attends a private girls’ school where the emphasis is more on studying and less on bukatsu.

“This impressed me and was actually one of the reasons we chose the school. (Her club) is as is should be: just for fun,” she says.

Whatever the pros and cons of bukatsu might be, it doesn’t last forever. Unless students are in an escalator school with guaranteed admission to the next step on the educational ladder, both junior and senior high school students usually quit in their third year to concentrate on entrance-exam preparations. Although the early-morning practices and mounds of dirty sports gear might seem endless, parents take heart: This too shall pass.

Learning Curve covers issues related to education in Japan. Comments and story ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp

  • http://getironic.blogspot.com/ getironic

    If I had had to go to public school in Japan I would probably would have axed myself. My orientation to school was to do everything in my power to minimize the time spent there. I cared too much about learning to ever get too caught up with school and homework. I was in school at 8:05, out of school for lunch, always put my spare in 6th period so I could go home early at 2:10 and get the actual work of the day done.

    Bukatsu generally freaks me out. The Japanese obsession with kata fuels all this, and is viewed as virtuous even if no one’s skills actually improve. It’s like Western classical educations view of “character building” through pointless anki and drilling.

    Of course, the goal of bukatsu is not the cultivation of skills or education, the goal is indoctrinate and condition the student to expect to have a full schedule at all times. This is the supposed way to prepare kids for life, since apparently one should expect a life of duty, tiredness and busywork. And what is Japan getting from their adults…hmm…This also results in a saying that all foreigners who have lived in Japan have heard, often when questioned as to why they are doing something: “But I am Japanese, so….”

    This “You better fill up your schedule!” subconscious imperative comes from a culturally ingrained fear that individuals left to their own devices tend to self-destruct or harm others. The real reason that premise is ingrained however, historically speaking, is by rulers to maintain their power structure. That ensures order so no one has any time to question or doubt, only to accept and memorize.

    The old feudal ideas and culture of that time still carry over into today. For example, it is why public school teachers are moved endlessly around their prefecture; to not give them enough time to ever “get comfortable” — as that might lead to self-destruction and harming others by no longer caring about their job. This is a fear that those in power in old times were right to have, because people lacked much choice in their occupation, it should be normal to become disinterested. But in modern times this no longer applies, yet still the ideas persists.

    You know, people say, “Japanese kids need to learn how to write essays and think critically.” Well, in order to do that it would require large blocks of unscheduled time (which would be different from child to child) for the mind to draw its own conclusions and actually develop the curiosity to be interested in writing about these things. There is no time for that. And such unregulated thinking time could cause a whole host of problems for adults who wish to keep kids “in line”. As one Japanese teacher confessed to me when I asked why I saw her just standing by an escalator during working hours at the station, “The students were let out early today. I am watching for them. They have no liberty.”

    This view is also the reason there are make-work projects and seemingly useless jobs. For example, as mall parking assistants, crossing guards for roads that see about 2 cars an hour, or when 10 cleaners are employed to clean an office when only 4 are needed and where the employees themselves are “company team-building shamed” into cleaning anyway, so none of the cleaners are actually needed.

    While I am no fan of religion, the Christian Japanese that I have met are way more well-adjusted to value their own free time then those in the Shinto tradition. (Of course, that comes with its own problems too, with a lot of those Christian families taking on a super-conservative view of birth control and abortion leading them to have kids they don’t want, leading those kids to feel they are unloved accidents, or to parents taking out their frustration and their believed “duty” on their kids by abusing them)

    It is easy to see a better way. It is easy to formulate a healthier way of educating children and cultivate in them a respect for the value of their own time, via a respect for the value of their thinking mind. But what is not easy is finding a the way out of the status quo. What is not easy is undoing what has been ingrained so deeply that it is culturally normalized and only questioned by “outsiders”.

  • Jamie Bakeridge

    The purpose or bukatsu seems to be less about fun sport and culture and more about creating unthinking mindless drones.

  • Firas Kraïem

    Just live by the words of Sir Winston Churchill : “No sports.”

  • Max Erimo

    Bukatsu is the breeding ground for bullying and the creation of people who cannot use free time if they ever manage to have any, hence creating people who are willing to slave for the company until they die.
    Teachers who put their children into day care of a weekend to take part in bukatsu are not parents. The wife is a junior high school teacher who conducts the school band, the husband is an elementary school teacher who does nothing on the weekend. The three year old son goes to day care. Disgusting.
    Japanese parents like bukatsu because it means they don’t have to deal with their children.
    If the teachers put as much time in to preparation for and teaching the classes and the children spent as much time studying as they do at bukatsu, Japan’s low education level problem (学力低下) would be solved.
    Not an uninformed foreigner but a person who has been working in the education system for long enough to know what really goes on.

    • Gordon Graham

      Working in the education system as a dancing clown doesn’t really count, Max

    • kyushuphil

      Low education level isn’t a problem, Max. Its a boon to authoritarianism.

      So long as group conformity remains the number one goal, all the doddering old men in power will forever be deferred to. TEPCO can lie and cover up about the safety of nukes. Shopping malls and highways can continue to replace good farm land. All women on TV commercials will continue to speak in baby voices. Mindlessness will continue to rule, following all the worst of American consumerism mindlessness.

      Japanese could, contrarily, in schools stress more essay writing and individual observation of others. They could. Figures from older Japanese culture excelled in this. But this great, older culture is apparently now lost on Japanese being taught only to be mindlessly busy, busy in group busyness.

    • Gordon Graham

      Japan is currently ranked 5th in the world in terms of literacy, maths and science behind only Finland, South Korea, Canada and New Zealand. What was that about Japan’s low education level problem, Max?

    • Gordon Graham

      Wow! The English in the post is just atrocious! I have an idea on how to raise the level of education in Japan. Fire incompetent teachers.

  • shortpoppy

    Sounds like rep hockey in canada

  • Jay

    Interesting topic. I like the idea that clubs keep kids offline and physically and mentally active in more productive ways. I also think clubs in Japan, even with their over-do it attitudes, are preferable to the rock-and-drugs culture that attracted so many teenagers of my generation in Canada.

  • kyushuphil

    Thank you — yes — the problem yet hugely looms.

    It kills, too. Japan has a suicide rate nearly triple that of youth in the U.S. — the Japanese just don’t really know how the engage the mass of lies, the wash of consumerism. Every female voice in every TV commercial is that of a baby — as if being forever infantile were women’s greatest wish. That’s a lie. The girls all must know it at some level — but no schools help them engage these lies.

    So thanks for writing. So much to do, as you aptly say.