Boot-camp bukatsu no place for the fainthearted


Coming out of the Japanese education system, one is thankful for one thing: No more bukatsu (after-school activities)! No more running 50 laps around the school grounds until your lungs are almost bursting out from your throat, no more kowtowing to the senpai (seniors) or having to spend most of one’s waking hours sweating and panting, then trying to recover during classes.

Afterward, one would inevitably fall asleep, head pressed down onto the pages of an open algebra textbook. Looking back, one marvels at how anyone graduated from junior high and high school, or made it to college for that matter.

Later, one is acutely aware of huge gaps in educational knowledge. Geometry? Natural science? Forget it. Strangely though, as the years go by the nostalgia one feels for bukatsu increases.

There’s just nothing in the life of a Japanese adult that comes close to the strenuousness, the physical stress and severe jyoge kankei (top-down relationships) that define the bukatsu. It was as if adrenaline gushed to peak levels and stayed there every single day. Imagine being a permanent member of Billy’s Boot Camp, without the fun, without Billy and clad in school-mandated jyaji (nylon sweats) and you’ll get the picture. Not all Japanese kids are made to join bukatsu of course; there are many who go the bunka-kei (cultural) route and join dokusho (literature appreciation) clubs and sado (tea ceremony) clubs.

Believe me, I wished with every fiber of my being that I had been one of those kids. But having enrolled in the tennis-bu (tennis club) — a particularly strict club in our school — there was literally no escape. To say you were quitting brought on the same feelings and connotations as a prison-break. It just wasn’t done; so you just didn’t do it.

Even today when Japanese society and schools have become so much more jiyu (liberal) than 20 years ago, the bukatsu experience remains pretty much the same. The ichinensei (freshmen) are expected to fetch and carry, clean the bushitsu (club locker room) and, during gasshuku (concentrated camp training that’s done away from school in some rural area), wash the senpai’s uniforms, keep the mugicha (barley tea) cold, and many other chores that come on top of all the training and practicing. The ninensei (second-year students) are expected to supervise the ichinensei and make sure everything is carried out without a hitch. They also deal with injuries, provide mental counseling and intervene in any fights. The sanensei (the seniors) are often the regula school team members and so are expected to do honor to the school by winning tournaments.

The pressure is enormous, not to mention the pressure of juken (university entrance exams) looming over the existence like a dark and foreboding cloud. It’s no wonder many Japanese profess to putting on weight drastically once they graduate and are liberated from bukatsu — there’s rarely any other time in the life of a Japanese person that requires so much concentrated physical and mental activity, and the related emotional drama that comes with it.

A lot of people, reminiscing about their bukatsu-centric school days, will get all teary and surprisingly eloquent. The most oft-repeated phrase, “ano korowa kagayaieteita!” (literally, those days shined brilliantly) says a lot about adolescence in Japan, how the no-pain-no-gain aesthetics and quasi-military emphasis on obedience and discipline can draw out some real happiness during that chaotic period. Or perhaps it’s just that all the physical strain and having to study obliterates most other concerns and ennui.

The bukatsu experience stays with you for life, which is a big part of why many of the bestselling books are all about bukatsu. The enormously popular “Battery” by Atsuko Asano is about 12-year-old boys locked in baseball bukatsu, the friendships and animosities and the incredible amount of practice they go through. The wholesomeness and pure single-mindedness of the characters are a bit over the top but the sentiments about team spirit and joy of physical achievement are things any bukatasu alumni can identify with.

Seishun (blue spring) is a phrase used to describe youth, but many Japanese will often equate their seishun with bukatsu, how hard it was, and the youthful glories reaped from it all.