When I was in high school I was, among other things, on the field hockey team, in school plays, on the arts council, and on the Schoolreach team. (I have no shame about my nerdiness. Schoolreach was fun!) It was all a part of getting a well-rounded educational experience. I fully believed that a broad range of extracurricular activities would help me get into my choice of university. (Side note: Who is telling kids this? Is it actually true? I don’t recall seeing “Check here if you were a mathlete” on any of my undergrad applications.)
When I tried to explain to my students this range of activities I was met with blank stares. I finally showed them my yearbook and pointed to pictures off all the different teams. Only then did they understand that I belonged to multiple teams or clubs. That would be almost unthinkable here. This is one of the biggest differences in Japanese and Canadian high schools.
Club activities in Japan are serious and require a level of commitment that I think few North American teenagers could muster. Every student– with very few exceptions– joins one club and they commit to that one club for their three years of senior high school. Some clubs meet only a few times a month. For example, the cooking, photography, and computer clubs at my school meet weekly. Others meet daily — Monday through Saturday and occasionally on Sundays. The most intense club activities tend to be athletic teams who shoulder high expectations. In my school the soccer team and the canoe club are both held to very high standards and the members practice daily. Nothing stops practices; students come to school year round to meet with their clubs.
During the off-season the athletic teams work out together to stay in shape for the next season. When the weather is bad they exercise and run laps indoors. More than once I have heard the rumble of the baseball team rounding the corner and have had to dash into a classroom to avoid reenacting the stampede scene from the Lion King.
The commitment to their club activities means that Japanese students create strong and intense social networks. My first and second year students often write essays about the people they admire most, the senpai from their club activities. The younger students look up to the third years and the third years take great pride in showing leadership in their club activities. This structure promotes a sense of responsibility that I am not sure existed at my high school. While the clubs do have staff advisors, it is common for meetings or practices to be run entirely by the students, usually the third years. Even in situations requiring first aid it is normally the team manager, a student, who rushes to aid a fallen teammate.
Of course there are downsides to this approach to club activities. The obvious pitfall is that, unlike in North America, the Japanese system does not afford students many opportunities to try new things through club activities. It also seems that Japanese club activities put an enormous amount of pressure on students; they have class all day, spend several hours after school with their clubs, and return home to (maybe) finish their homework before going to bed and doing it all again the next day. This pressure absolutely existed when I was in high school, but I would argue that the long term commitment to club activities in Japan heightens the pressure. Students here do not always have the option of passing on this year’s soccer season if they feel their marks are suffering. They just need to find more hours in the day for studying. Sleep? Who needs it?
Ultimately, the Japanese approach to club activities reflects and reinforces the Japanese value that group needs ought to come before individual needs. It gives students a chance to participate in hierarchies like those they will face in the workplace. It gives students a chance to practice leadership and role modeling. Within the realm of Japanese society, all of this is completely normal and positive. But yikes, as an outsider peering in, it is intense.