The serious business of clubbing together


My 10-year-old is in the school basketball club but is thinking about switching to another club. He’s been agonizing over this decision, which tells you something about the importance of school clubs in Japan.

School clubs here are different from anything we had at our school in America. Every child in fourth grade and up is expected to join one. And meetings aren’t held after school. They are held during the school day, part of the official period of instruction.

Clearly this is something very different from the voluntary, after-school clubs at U.S. schools. What’s it all about? Once a week, students from different classes and grades gather to pursue a common interest. Together, they set goals for the club, organize activities and, most of all, have fun.

Sounds good, but why are clubs held during school hours? Is this educational? Japanese teachers will tell you it is. Clubs encourage students to explore something that interests them and to work with others of different ages who share the same interest.

School clubs have a long history in Japan. In the 1880s, during the Meiji Era, many schools set up koyukai (school friendship clubs) as an opportunity for jiyu kenkyu (independent research). Over time, school clubs came to be a standard feature of education. In 1947, the Education Ministry specifically instructed schools to set aside time for club meetings and, in the late ’60s, clubs were made mandatory. For almost 40 years, clubs have had their own time slot on the official jikanwari (school schedule), and time spent in clubs has counted as classroom instruction. Currently, 35 hours out of the official school year are allocated for clubs.

There is a distinction between these school clubs, called kurabu, and the voluntary, after-school clubs that are called bukatsudo. A few elementary schools have bukatsudo as well as kurabu, but voluntary extracurricular clubs are most common at middle and high schools, and universities.

Bukatsudo in Japan can be nearly as much of a commitment as marriage, and students spend long hours every week with their clubs. Ever wondered why you see students in uniform on days when there is no school? It’s because they’ve gone back to school, even on a Sunday or a national holiday, to spend more time with their club. A friend’s daughter complains that her high-school tennis club takes up so much time that she can’t pursue other interests. Or get her homework done.

The kurabu at elementary schools are not nearly so demanding. At the school my children attend, clubs meet just once a week, for 45 minutes in the last period on Monday. Clubs are usually open only to fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders. At our school, kids have a choice between the following clubs: exercise, badminton, table tennis, basketball, dance, cooking, computers, arts & crafts, games and comic drawing.

Students may form new clubs if they can find other kids with the same interests, so the choices change from year to year. The club lineup reflects local interests as well as what’s popular at the moment. Some of my adult friends have fond memories of their baton-twirling club, but that’s not a popular activity anymore.

Students handle most of the club organization and management by themselves, but each club has at least one teacher as komon (adviser). This isn’t voluntary either; it’s part of teachers’ jobs to supervise a club.

In February and March, the clubs hold open houses, inviting interested students to come for a taiken (trial experience). Some of the taiken are specifically for third-graders, to introduce them to club activities. A friend’s third-grader is really excited about being able to join the knitting club when she steps up to fourth grade in April.

I just checked to see where my son is in his deliberations. It looks like his first choice will be the game club. This is because he’s crazy about shogi, the board game that is similar to chess but with more complicated rules. My eyes glaze over every time he tries to explain them to me. Second choice? Probably the computer club. Sixth-graders get preference if too many kids want to be in a club, so he doesn’t know yet which one he’ll be able to join.

That’s not the only thing up in the air. Our school still hasn’t figured out how it’s going to handle clubs from April, when all public schools switch to a five-day school week. There won’t be school on Saturday anymore, so the curriculum has had to be reduced. Among the many cuts were clubs, which will no longer count toward official instruction time.

Instead, the ministry will allow each school to decide how many hours to devote to clubs. In theory, that means that schools could eliminate clubs completely. But because clubs are a fixture of Japanese education, I’m sure that schools will find time, somehow, to keep them going.

Yes, clubs will be continued at our school, the principal assured me. But meeting time will be reduced, probably to 20 hours per school year. And there won’t be meetings every week.

I’m glad there will still be clubs, although I’m not sure how I feel about them being mandatory. Some children dislike group activities. Is it right to force them to participate in clubs? And school clubs may not mean much to children who are busy with other after-school activities. They might gain more from spending the time with their neighborhood soccer team.

On the other hand, school clubs are good for kids who don’t get much opportunity for after-school activities, including those who are hustled off to study at juku (cram schools) as soon as they walk in the door from school. And not every family can afford to pay the fees for privately organized activities. School clubs are equitable because they’re free.

Since my son doesn’t do any after-school sports or activities, I’m glad he can join a club at school. I do hope he gets into his first-choice club so he’ll have someone to play shogi with. Otherwise, I’m afraid, he might again, try to make me learn.