April marks the start of the school year in Japan and the time many students get ready to pick a school club. But the suffering of some students under relentless coaching has emerged as a social problem, and experts say students need to know the limits.
A 17-year-old male student in his second year at a private high school in Tokyo is among those to have borne the brunt of rough coaching. When he twisted his ankle and fell during practice for his soccer club in July last year, the teacher overseeing the club barked out, "It's probably just a sprain. Tape it up and keep going."
With only one month left until the national championships, the stakes were high. The next day, a hospital visit confirmed that the bone had been broken. But instead of supporting the student, the coach yelled, "It's because you're a wimp that you can't become a regular on the team!"
The comment came as a shock to the student, but what he feared more was the threat of excessive coaching eventually killing him. "I wanted to quit immediately," he said, "But I'm friends with a lot of the club members so I stayed quiet. I really wasn't that serious about playing soccer in the first place."
Atsushi Nakazawa, an associate professor in the School of Sport Sciences at Waseda University, has researched school club activities and authored the book "Sorosoro, Bukatsu no Korekara o Hanashimasen ka" (Isn't It About Time We Talked about the Future of Club Activities?). He points out, "It's strange for club activities to exist as they are in the first place."
Club activities in Japan are not part of the school curriculum. The government-set curriculum guidelines for junior high school clearly state that a student's participation club activities should be of their own volition. Thus, while there is no basis for forcing students to participate, Nakazawa says, "The view of not operating club activities as neglecting a child's education is getting stronger, and in many schools, the practice has become ingrained as customary." In fact, according to a survey in the 2014 academic year by the National Institution for Youth Education, some 89 percent of second-year junior high school students and about 78 percent of second-year high school students are involved in club activities.
The reality is that even if attendance is burdensome, students still join a club out of a sense of obligation. Nakazawa adds, "Many of the children's parents are part of a generation where participation in a club was a given, and are likely to push their own children into joining a club, too."
Some schools do require students to join a club. But when Nakazawa and his colleagues surveyed junior high schools in Tokyo and seven other prefectures in 2008, they found that almost all schools in Iwate Prefecture, and around half of the schools in Shizuoka and Kagawa prefectures made participation obligatory. "As part of the operation of a school as a whole, everyone participates in a club as a rule. It is a long-standing tradition," explained the Iwate Prefectural Board of Education.
As it's not required by the system or the law to participate, it should be easy to leave a club, but in reality, leaving can become complicated due to relationships with friends and other factors. To those children, Nakazawa has three pieces of advice: "If it comes to the point where you feel like dying, then you should quit," "If you are forced into joining a club when your interests lie elsewhere, then it's OK to quit" and "If it's a club you chose yourself, even if you have a bit of a hard time, tough it out."
Daisuke Honma, a member of a group of teachers working to provide solutions and alternatives to problems surrounding club activities, suggests creating groups for students with the same interests without the element of coaching to separate them from club activities while still providing students with both something to do after school and opportunities to build friendships.
"You can use open classrooms in the school or rent a space in local facilities like community centers," he suggests. "Since it's an independent activity, it's closer to the original idea of a club."