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Japanese university clubs struggling to survive as COVID restricts recruitment events

Gunma University lacrosse club founder Masayuki Aida, background left, is seen during a trial event co-hosted with Takasaki City University of Economics' women's lacrosse team, on the Takasaki City University of Economics grounds in Takasaki, on May 7, 2022. (Mainichi/Takashi Kawachi)

MAEBASHI -- University clubs and circles in Japan are struggling to survive as the COVID-19 pandemic has created hurdles for these groups' recruiting activities since the spring of 2020 when the coronavirus first hit the country.

    Gunma University in east Japan saw club activity notifications from 180 student groups in pre-pandemic 2019, but the number dropped to 151 this year. The institution's student support division says the university asks clubs and circles fulfilling certain criteria, such as five members or more, to submit their activity notifications every year. But over the past two years, the division has seen a series of disbandment notifications from student groups.

    One volunteer work group, for example, only had fourth-year students as members in 2020, and it dissolved in March 2021 when they graduated, after they failed to recruit freshman members. In January 2022, a double Dutch circle also broke up over declining membership.

    The university banned all extracurricular activities in response to the first coronavirus state of emergency that was issued for seven prefectures including Tokyo and Osaka on April 7, 2020. The state of emergency's timing overlapped with when clubs and circles approach first-year students who had just entered the school, and upperclassmen had no choice but to turn to social media and Zoom to invite freshman students to join their clubs.

    Starting June 2020, after the first wave of infections subsided, Gunma University resumed allowing extracurricular activities for groups that implement anti-transmission measures and submit activity notifications. However, infection waves kept coming back, making it difficult for new students to stay with clubs or circles. While the university has been supportive of such student organizations by making their information available on the university website, the circumstances continued where student organizers "had to consider both revitalizing their activities and ways to prevent infections," according to a student support division official.

    Despite the adversity, some students have been working energetically for club activities. Gunma University third-year student Masayuki Aida, 21, founded the men's lacrosse club by himself in April 2020 when he entered the school. By the winter of 2021, he managed to grow the one-man club to a 11-member circle.

    This year, however, Aida's lacrosse circle hasn't been able to welcome a single first-year student. In addition to the coronavirus crisis, Gunma University students, depending on the department, need to commute to campuses in the Gunma Prefecture cities of Kiryu and Ota from the second year, creating another hurdle for the circle's activities based in the prefectural capital Maebashi.

    "Freshmen tend to join popular sports clubs like soccer and basketball in the first place, so I'd say clubs doing minor sports are finding it hard (to get new members)," Aida told the Mainichi Shimbun.

    Still, Aida and his club hosted a lacrosse trial event on May 7 during the "Golden Week" holiday period together with a women's lacrosse team from Takasaki City University of Economics, which is also struggling to recruit new members. While no freshmen from Gunma University showed up to this event, four new students from Takasaki City University of Economics participated.

    "I want to build up hype for lacrosse with other universities in Gunma (Prefecture) as a whole and hope these events will attract new students to Gunma University," Aida said.

    (Japanese original by Takashi Kawachi, Maebashi Bureau)

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