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This ain’t no cure for the summertime blues

by Kaori Shoji

Special To The Japan Times

How are you looking vacationwise? Do you have a chunk of time set aside for genuine relaxation and that most wonderful of Western concepts: Fun? Personally speaking, it’s nearly impossible for me to enjoy summertime, as the season is fraught with traumatic memories. The reason for this boils down to just one word: gasshuku (合宿, lodging together, training camp), which can best be described as boot camp minus the scrambled eggs and bacon for breakfast, and plus having to deal with spiders the size of baseball gloves scurrying over the six tatami mats that make up an individual room. By the way, this cramped little room is shared with two other girls.

Ah, gasshuku. To many Japanese, it’s synonymous with gōmon (拷問, torture) and jigoku (地獄, hell), and brings back a slew of painful flashbacks in a sort of tornado-like Proustian rush. Gasshuku happens to every teenager in the nation engaged in bukatsu (部活, extracurricular activities), and the difficulty of escaping from its clutches is probably on par with breaking out of prison. Generations upon generations of Japanese youths have gone through the gasshuku wringer, and everyone has a story to tell. Interestingly, Tokyo schools are said to hold the most lax gasshuku, which is why they rarely win the championship in any sports. Boo.

The gasshuku takes place over a period of time (usually five to seven days) designed so that the team can practice their chosen physical activity every single day for 12 hours or more. The team is accompanied by the komon no sensei (顧問の先生, the school teacher who is both head coach and team administrator) plus another coach or two.

On the appointed day, everyone gathers at school to board the bus that will shuttle them away to a countryside inn or hotel. Depending on the school, the students will be banned from bringing shifuku (私服, personal clothing) of any kind, let alone fun, summery things such as dresses, denim skirts and the like. Keshō dōgu (化粧道具, makeup tools) are out of the question, with the exception of hiyakedome (日焼け止め, sunscreen).

On the day of the gasshuku, they show up in their seifuku (制服, school uniforms), with a supōtsu baggu (スポーツバッグ, sports bag) crammed with exercise wear and towels. And for a solid week, they do nothing but pant, sweat and work out. As for meals, the gasshuku teiban (定番, standby) is curry over rice, oyako don (親子丼, boiled chicken, onions and eggs over rice), yasai itame (野菜いため, sauteed vegetables) and sōsu yakisoba (ソース焼きそば, noodles sauteed with cabbage and pork, and flavored with Worcester sauce).

That these are all greasy and loaded with additives goes without saying, but relentless workouts leave you too hungry to care. By 10 p.m. everyone has more or less passed out on their futons, too tired to even slap at the mosquitos streaming in from the holes in the window screens, to scream over the giant ga (蛾, moths) that plaster the tiled walls of the communal restroom at the far end of the hall. Morning warmups start at 6 a.m., breakfast is at 7 a.m. and latecomers are punished by running extra laps, doing extra situps, polishing the dojo floor and other gasshuku pastimes.

My youngest brother was a yakyū shōnen (野球少年, baseball boy), which in Japan more or less indicates a teenage life soaked to the gills in mud, sweat and dogō (怒号, enraged hollering) from the komon no sensei. There were about 100 buin (部員, members) on his school team, all of whom had been playing baseball since they could walk, so getting on the honored sutamen (スタメン, first team) involved ferocious competition. He never got that slot, or managed to step on the sacred soil of Kōshien (甲子園, Kōshien stadium in Osaka, where the national high school baseball tournament has been held for the past 93 years), but he still had to endure the agonies of gasshuku, year after year.

When he was 15, my brother contemplated writing an isho (遺書 suicide note) during a particularly grueling summer gasshuku. Two of his teammates were hospitalized with severe cases of necchūshō (熱中症, hyperthermia), and many others were sent home because they couldn’t take the intensity of the renshū menyū (練習メニュー workout schedule). My brother decided to die and then thought better of it. Ano tsurasa ni kurabetara otona no shigoto ha nante rakuda (あの辛さに比べたら大人の仕事はなんて楽だ, compared with the suffering of that time, an adult’s work is so easy) is my brother’s take on life.

And that would seem to be the truth behind the Japanese gasshuku: It’s a standard of measurement for life’s hardships. Endure (我慢, gaman) it, and so much of whatever else life throws at you seems much easier to catch. Take it from a gasshuku survivor — whatever doesn’t kill you will only make you stronger. Though having fewer bugs around would definitely help.