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Extra-curricular activities that overworked teachers don't have time or energy for


Stress is contagious. Stressed teachers make for stressed kids. Stressed kids are hard to manage and stress teachers further. Then there are the parents, of whom more in a moment.

Aera (Dec 10), surveying parents, teachers and students, finds that 90 percent of them think of schools as “not free.” Schools can’t, of course, be entirely free. Growing up means, in part, learning to follow rule, or at least defy them intelligently. But they’re not prisons either, though sometimes they may feel as though they are.

A 50-year-old mother the magazine speaks to noticed one day that her fourth-grade daughter’s breasts were swelling. Children mature early these days. She took the girl aside and initiated a mother-daughter talk about bras. The child was willing enough, but doubtful: “We’re not allowed to wear underwear under our gym uniforms.”

“What?” Her mother was astonished. She contacted the school and demanded an explanation. The one she got was that kids sweat in gym class, the sweat chills, and underwear compounds the problem. This may, to those who understand such things, make more sense than appears to those who don’t. Be that as it may, Aera raises it as an example of the rules-for-rules’-sake mentality that weighs down schools’ freedom – but also as a sign that things may be changing, for the school did see the mother’s point, and compromises were made.

Japanese teachers are said to be much overworked, compared to those in other countries. Administrative responsibilities foisted on them are part of the problem, but the main issue is bukatsu – extra-curricular club activities which actually sound like fun: basketball, tennis, gymnastics and the like.

They would be fun, but for the pressures brought to bear on them. Here is how one senior high school teacher in his 20s describes his workload. He supervises, it seems, three separate clubs – basketball, tennis, and a third whose activities include volunteering for three days and two nights at a time at a senior citizens’ home. Shortly before this he had taken the tennis kids to a mountain lake for five days and four nights, then repeated the excursion with the basketball kids. “Fourteen straight days without a break” – which is by no means unusual, he says.

Recreation is not the point. Training is. Bukatsu are not compulsory, but, Aera says, most schools encourage kids to take part, and require most teachers to do some bukatsu supervising. This is extra-curricular in the full sense of the word – after lessons for the kids, after work for the teachers, though the strictness of the typical regimen can make it feel like hard time for both students and teachers.

Who applies the pressure? The education ministry, which regards bukatsu as essential for character formation; schools, which incorporate club team victories and defeats into teachers’ evaluations; teachers because they themselves are so intensely pressured; and, perhaps most of all, says Aera, over-zealous parents who are the most fiercely competitive element in the mix.

They scorn limits. Anything goes in the name of victory. Aera tells of “a certain prefecture in Tohoku” that required public schools to cease all activities by 6 p.m. The parents were having none of it. They got together, formed a Bukatsu Association, raised money, and got the kids practicing in rented gym rooms or sports grounds.

The story ends on a hopeful note. Harbinger of possible change was a “bukatsu summit” held in September in Shizuoka. It brought together six sports teams from schools all over the country. Chairing the sessions was a 60-year-old Kasukabe, Saitama Prefecture junior high school basketball coach named Hideo Tanaka, famous in school sports circles for enviable results despite – or because of? – moderate practice.

He reveals his secret: “The athletes themselves decide the practice routines. All I do is fine-tune them.”

© Japan Today

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It’s a huge part of the school system and one of the reasons for the ultra overwork of many teachers. I’d suggest you will never truely know the Japanese high school system until you’ve been directly involved in these extra curricular activities.

In my case it’s a labor of love, in that I have a deep love for my chosen bukatsu, karate, and it was one of the main reasons to come to Japan in the first place. Having said that I’m typing this from a bus on the way to another tournament and haven’t had a single full day off in over four months. It took a while but I actually got used to it. When you start bringing home some serious medals you find energy you never know you ever had. Just lucky to be part of a serious team.

Like with anything though, if you are just going through the motions and not striving to become one of the top teams it can be a real drag and bukatsu has been known to be a bit of a holding pen, keeping kids occupied because no one else can. It’s also one of the reasons juvenile delinquency and youth crime is so low in Japan so it does serve a serious purpose. Just comes down to whether these dedicated Senseis are getting the support they need, and often they’re not. I’m an official convert to the pros of Japanese bukatsu bunka, as the skill level that these athletes attain at such a young age is second to none, but you have to do it right.

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Thanks for your insight, Ricky.

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The only purpose I see with bukatsu in the Japanese school system is to teach conformity, and that being number one is the only goal in life. That may be good for educating factory workers and lift the country economically but not when you need to teach 21st century skills MEXT has mandated. It's great to see the success of bukatsu teacher letting the students decide the practice routines. The next step will let students decide the rules like deciding bukatsu to be optional!

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bukatsu has been known to be a bit of a holding pen, keeping kids occupied because no one else can. It’s also one of the reasons juvenile delinquency and youth crime is so low in Japan so it does serve a serious purpose

Great observation that I'd not thought of before, having no experience of Japanese JHS/HS. I know many of the products of these clubs though, as they wind up in my classes at uni. And clearly without sports there'd be little left to keep them going. They are, with rare exceptions, not there for academic reasons (nor are they qualified to be on a college campus) or to prepare themselves for a real career. Most talk about becoming professional baseball players or boxers and we all know how realistic those dreams are. So eventually the holding pen breaks.

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Yep, that’s the unscrupulous and unfortunate side. We try and get through to our kids that becoming a pro although it’s a worthy dream, the odds are fairly highly stacked against it eventuating. Everyone needs a plan B and C ! Use the grit, discipline and mental toughness that sports give you and take an active interest in the world and how it works. If they can be smart both physically and intellectually the world is literally theirs.

Bunbo ryoudo. The pen and the sword!

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Yes interesting insights Ricky.

My only experience with bukatsu has been through my own kid (one didn't do it) and through students and the school I taught at.

My daughter loved the clubs - choir and handball - but the pressure, esp choir, to achieve, ie win competitions, was enormous. One winter the choir was closed for 4 days only after 8 of the 13 members came down with the flu one after another. Common sense would have dictated to close after the 1st case but competition was only 2 weeks away, so practice we must. The teacher was under enormous pressure because she was not a music teacher (she played piano in her school days) and the only music teacher was taking care of the brass band. When my daughter said she will miss the prefectural summer vacation competitions, because she was going to aust to visit relatives - well she was just being selfish and not thinking about the "team". A sad joke all round.

And the baseball clubs of my students were legendary in this area for their spartan ideas to training. Pulling tires in summer heat, endless laps of the sportsground, a quick punch to the head to get attention etc.

But had some nice students join the art club in jnr & snr high. They loved it. 2 or maybe 3 days a week. Relaxed, fun almost therapeutic I guess. And they created some wonderful works.

For me clubs have great positives, but way too much time is involved. Way too much. 2~3 days a week at the max is enough.

For the amount of time sports club kids spend training 6-7 days a week for years on end, you'd think Japan would have world class champions in just about every popular sport - but no.

And perhaps the Biggest negative for me is that kids have to choose ONE club and stick with it. No changing to tennis at summer from soccer in winter, or mixing basketball with baseball or athletics. No Way. All year round for 3 years is the only way in almost all cases. Crazy.

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And perhaps the Biggest negative for me is that kids have to choose ONE club and stick with it. No changing to tennis at summer from soccer in winter, or mixing basketball with baseball or athletics. No Way. All year round for 3 years is the only way in almost all cases. Crazy.

Exactly. It's great that they can develop one craft but at the exclusion of all others? I could do tennis, track and cross country in HS. And some truly gifted kids get scholarship offers for 2 or 3 different sports. Or they play one sport but also put a lot of effort into drama or chess, what have you.

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Often, the best players in the world tend to have multiple interests too

Michael Jordan - also played baseball in high school

Usain Bolt and Novak Djokovic - also played soccer in their youth

It lets them learn other stuff outside their sport and use what they learn from many sports into a synergy effect

And it keeps them from burning out from their main sport - it's like eating your favorite food but in every meal of every day - eventually you'd come to hate it

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I’m an official convert to the pros of Japanese bukatsu bunka, as the skill level that these athletes attain at such a young age is second to none, but you have to do it right.

Really interesting post, Ricky, but I question the value of it. I look at my wider Japanese family - SHS girl leaves for school at 6am and then comes back at 8pm every day, to allow time for clubs before and after school. School holidays are still dominated by club activities 7 days a week. She had to throw a sickie to be able to attend a big family dinner around Obon. And it massively eats into her study time - she is not a particularly academic girl and could really benefit from a bit more study time, but no - bukatsu comes first. My wife says that it is much worse than when she was at school.

But you mention that their skill levels are really high. You might expect that Japanese athletes would dominate the world, but at best, Japan is a sporting mediocrity.

Of course, clubs are not compulsory, but we all know that it is only a technicality - you need to join. And unless you join art club or something, it is a virtually full-time activity.

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Only can speak of my experience with our team, which is a member of a federation with by far the highest level of proficiency in their age group pretty much in the world. Lucky to have a good team of professional and modern thinking coaches where we rotate shifts when we have to. Understand the concerns about over doing it, and of course of teams being run by over worked teachers who don’t actually specialize in their sport , but if you saw just how good these kids get and the skill level jaws would be dropped. The students actually get used to training three hours daily like it’s a walk in the park. ( six hours sometimes on the weekend! Smiles , laughs and hard slog . It becomes a like a family and we have to tell them to go home sometimes! Can’t be much different to say basketball or American football in the states.

If our students really get their act together they can choose to also be in high level ( relatively of course ) study courses. Extra burden of effort, but the benefits of doing both is obvious. Some manage to pull it. They do tournaments for two and a half years in high school then retire from competition for six months before graduation where they can knuckle down and study. If they are successful competitors they can go off to one of the top karate universities and have a chance at the Olympic dream.

With all the pros and cons, when you see how badly behaved , listless and bored a lot of kids are overseas, you could be doing a lot worse. Start messing around in uni, the way it’s supposed to be!

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