Friday, December 5, 2014

JET: Club Activities - An Introduction.

Hello again!

From elementary to senior high school; if you teach at a school in Japan, you're sure to come across club activities. In my JET: A Day in My Life post, I mentioned just a few of the kinds of clubs my own senior high school offers: academic (maths), cultural (tea ceremony, calligraphy), sports (baseball, track and field, kyūdōkendō), and others (karuta, drama, manga, movie).So what is this club activity business all about? Let me tell you how club activities work at my school, what you might be expected to do, and how club activites can be a fun and engaging experience for you.

When new students arrive at school in April, they get a kind of sales pitch from their new senpai (students a year or two above them/upperclassmen), who introduce the club the belong to. At my school, the students also make and distribute a small pamphlet, in which each of the clubs writes a short paragraph and draws some cute pictures about what they do. In this way, the senpai recruit new members for their club. Students can come along to different clubs for a couple of weeks before they decide which club to join. This is an important step, as once students have decided to join a club, they are expected to dedicate themselves to its activities for at least the full school year, if not the entire rest of their time at high school. It can be seen as irresponsible, flakey, or troublesome, to leave ones club partway through the year - but I do know students that have done it.

The school cultural festival, or bunkasai, is a good time to see some of the various clubs in action.
There are a few options regarding joining clubs. One, of course, is to not join any club. That is fine, and the decision is totally up to the individual student. Some students don't join clubs because they have long commutes home, attend a lot of cram school, already have out-of-school commitments (e.g. one of my students practices ballet at a dance school for hours every day after class), or it may simply be that there is no club that appeals to them/they prefer to spend time at home or by themselves after school. I've heard that students who don't join clubs are sometimes treated as loners by their classmates, and while that wouldn't surprise me given Japan's high rates of classroom bullying, I've never noticed it in my own classes. By the way, if you ask these students what club they belong to, they will usually give the rather amusing answer of "I belong to the Go Home club".

Another option is to join more than one club. When the senpai are recruiting for their club, they will tell the new students which day the club meets. It's possible for students to join two clubs if the club timetable allows for it. Some clubs meet every day, so students who join clubs with very intense schedules (usually sports clubs, such as baseball, basketball, badminton, but also, in my school's case, brass band), can only commit to one.

Enough about the logistics of joining a club! What happens once students sign up? Clubs generally meet for about 2 - 3 hours after school at least once a week. There are teachers who are in charge of the club, but their involvement in the actual club activities depends on the club and teacher. Generally speaking, most of the club activities are run by the senpai. Teachers can give a preference for which club they'd like to be involved in, but it doesn't always play out the way they want. A couple of the JTEs I work with are good examples - one enjoys English and learning about other cultures, so she asked to lead the International Exchange Club, and was allowed to do so. On the other hand, another one of my JTEs loves rugby, but my school has no rugby club - so he was given the role of basketball club leader. He has absolutely no interest in basketball, has no knowledge of basketball strategy or training, and has to give up most of his weekends to attend inter-school basketball games. The poor guy!

Thshodō club made a performance by writing this stunning calligraphy with large brushes, in front of a huge audience.
As an ALT, you may already have club responsibilities planned for you. When I came, I was told I was also in charge of the International Exchange Club, which I now help to run on Tuesdays and Thursdays for a couple of hours each time. As I've mentioned before, organising activities for I.E.C can be a bit of work, but it's fun and it keeps me busy. It's quite likely you'll be asked to run some kind of English or internationally-focused club, like me. If there's no club set up for you and you'd like to start one, go for it! Bring it up with your supervisor and see what they say. A good idea is to organise a one-off club night to judge student interest. That way, in the unlikely event that it doesn't go well, you're not committed to a year's worth of awkward/awful club meetings. Of course it's much more likely that'll it'll go down great, and you can be in for a lot more fun and enjoy interacting more with your students. My club does a whole lot of cool activities and events during the year, such as research projects, games, Christmas and Halloween parties, a yearly sleepover at school, and meet-and-greets with all the exchange students that visit our school.

Aside from that, there are even more ways you can get involved in clubs. Why not consider joining a club yourself? Most schools have loads of club activities to choose from, so you'd be hard-pressed not to find something that interests you. If you're not passionate about any of the clubs in particular, I strongly recommend joining one of the clubs which are unique to Japan, such as kyūdō (Japanese archery), kendō (martial arts using bamboo sticks), shodō (calligraphy), koto (a traditional Japanese instrument), sadō (tea ceremony), and so on. Your time in Japan is your chance to experience these unique cultural offerings in a first-hand, authentic way, so grab this opportunity with both hands! Not only is joining a club a great way to learn more about the Japanese culture and language, it's also a great way to get to know some of your students better. Students that are quiet, sleepy, or distracted in class can often show their true personality in their club, surrounded by their friends. They might be shy to approach you at first, but soon enough, they'll be your very own senpai. It's so much fun to switch roles and be the student, and most students really enjoy sharing their knowledge about the club with you. If there's a club you want to join, talk to your supervisor about it, and ask them to introduce you to the teacher in charge. However, a warning to all ye who are considering joining a club: commitment! I'm sure you're allowed the same two week grace period the students get, but if you decide to join, you'll probably be expected to attend every practice or meeting, just like the students. Make sure you know what the club members expect of you before deciding to become a proper member - if you just want to attend casually, make that clear from the outset. If you ever start to feel the club is becoming too much (understandable!) talk it through with the teachers involved.

I do think club activities are a really unique and interesting aspect of Japanese school life. By now, you might be wondering "Annabelle, did you join a club? Which one?" Well, I did join a club, but as this post is already very long, I'll save writing about that for another post. But I will leave you with one clue...

Which club do you think uses these items? :P

- Annabelle.


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I've been a high school English language teacher on the JET Programme since August 2013. Read about my experiences, advice on being accepted into the JET Programme, and travel tips around Japan on my blog:


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