Monday, December 29, 2008

Bukatsu hell

"Exercising too much is bad for one's health." This maxim is largely ignored on the playing fields of Japan. Sports club activities occupy an inordinate amount of time in Japanese students' life. Many children go to school even on weekends and during summer vacations to practice sports.
When I began teaching in Japan, I was disturbed to see that students were allowed to doze off in the classroom because they were too tired. But I came to realize that most of them were not at fault. A simple English conversation class became a form of sociological study. Asking, "What time do you get up?" I was astounded by the number of students who were up at 5:30 a.m. and at school before 7 a.m. to play sports. It was a shock to see children making their way to school as I once returned bleary-eyed from an all-night excursion to Kumamoto. Before 6:00 a.m. on Sunday, whole baseball, soccer and athletics teams swarmed into my train.
I admit that clubs engender a sense of "belonging," but is it right to devote that much time to sports? Canadian students informally play various sports with friends a few times a week because they enjoy doing so, but many Japanese students, restricted to a single club activity, tell me that their practices are exhausting and boring. Enjoyment seems to come second to duty. In Japanese schools, those who refuse to join clubs are often viewed with suspicion, or even marginal hostility, as being anti-social and lazy; they are referred to as the "Go-Home-Early Club."
Other problems concerning club activities in Japan are bullying by some senior members and sexual harassment by some teachers who run the clubs. In extreme cases, victims suffer from severe depression or even commit suicide.
For example, during the summer camp of Kyoto Koka High School's athletics team in 2006, a 57-year-old coach fondled a 17-year-old girl. When the girl's parents were suing him, he suddenly died. Afterwards, other athletics team members started blaming the girl for the coach's death, causing her serious mental distress.
If club activities in Japanese schools continue to be so time-consuming and humiliating, more children will grow up alienated. Training to excess does little for enthusiasm or development. Moderation and variety are the keys to success.
A child's emotional and physical well-being depends mostly on a balance of rest, sound social interaction, and a positive learning environment. Club activities must provide children with every possible opportunity to be treated with respect and sensitivity. In this way, Japanese youngsters will foster a positive self esteem, a sense of responsibility, and good social skills.
Joel Assogba [Shukan ST: Feb. 29, 2008 (Published in Japan Times ST)]

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