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Parents rushed off feet as 'shadow members' in Japan's after-school clubs

Sakiko holds a smartphone in her hand in this photo she provided. She says she is always mindful about messages on her phone and can't part herself from it.
A baseball team comprising junior high school students, run by Nagoya-based Genki Sports Club, is seen in this photo supplied by the organization.

TOKYO -- In Japan's after-school club activities, parents are sometimes dubbed "shadow members" of the teams their children belong to, with their unceasing activities ranging from dropping off and picking up children from games, serving tea to participants, and organizing cheering for their children's teams.

    Sakiko (not her real name), whose daughter captains a high school volleyball team in Kyushu, was appointed the head of the parents' association for the team in November 2021. As it is customary for the parent of the captain to helm the parent body, Sakiko was sounded out about the role from her predecessor.

    "Though I was told I could decline the offer, I decided to take on the role as I'd seen my daughter working hard on her team," Sakiko told the Mainichi Shimbun.

    A single mother, Sakiko has two jobs, working full-time as a company employee during the day and moonlighting at a convenience store from early evening till late at night three times a week. People around her worry and tell her, "You'll damage your health," but she continues the demanding schedule for the sake of her daughter.

    Up until she became the leader of the parents' group, Sakiko had been able to work at the convenience store on weekends to cover her daughter's education expenses. However, as it is customary for the person in that role to accompany children on the team to matches against other schools on weekends to lead cheering, she switched her hours at the store to weekday nights, though she was aware it would be physically taxing.

    Sakiko receives the club's schedule, including game days, from a teacher supervising the team, and passes on the information to the parents of team members via social media. The information to be shared with other parents is so detailed that it even includes the parking spots at game venues.

    "It's harder than I'd imagined, and I cannot do without a smartphone," Sakiko lamented.

    If a school team is eager to participate in a national competition, the burden inflicted on parents tends to become even heavier. At one baseball powerhouse in the Tokyo metropolitan area, which has in the past competed in national high school championships at Hanshin Koshien Stadium in western Japan, the parents of team members have prepared bottled drinks to distribute to team alumni, brass band members and other affiliates. As a rule, several parents of lower-year students have split the job and taken turns, bringing beverages to game venues in their own cars. Some parents also serve as photographers, capturing the students' performances even in practice matches, and the pictures are shared among parents.

    While a majority of parents apparently tended to accept that the parent body duties were tough, it has emerged that some families have thought twice about sending their kids to this particular school after hearing rumors about the parents' group activities. This prompted them to discuss the issue and try to review the arrangements. Since their talks, drinks are prepared by each participant and role of photographer was abolished. A man who once chaired the parent body reflected, "Parents were involved too much. We didn't even have time to watch the games, and it made me wonder what we were doing it all for."

    In contrast, some private clubs have been gaining popularity due to the absence of the burden on parents' shoulders. Genki Sports Club based in Nagoya, which runs baseball teams for elementary and junior high school children, charges 10,000 yen (about $79) as an initial fee per junior high schooler and then 15,000 yen (approx. $120) per month, but there are no parents' associations. Students and parents head to game venues in a team bus, and practice sessions are recorded on video and distributed by Akitoshi Watanabe, 43, head of Genki Sports Club. Amid the declining birth rate in Japan, many schools are finding themselves struggling to form their own teams, but this club boasts more than 80 junior high school students as its members.

    Says Watanabe, "As more and more families become dual-income households, I've heard that parents' associations are placing a heavy burden on guardians. I wanted to change the long-held culture of parents being excessively involved in their children's sporting activities."

    (Japanese original by Tadashi Murakami and Shohei Kawamura, Tokyo Sports News Department)

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