Japanese Free Time

Quite a few years ago, before I set foot in the Japans, there was a policy shift in the Japanese school system. They stopped holding Saturday classes and cut back on some coursework. It seemed a step in the right direction. It was supposed to help invigorate the youth, help them to more independently discover their passions. All that good stuff.

It sounds reasonable on paper. But Japan looks good on paper in a lot of categories. When you put it under the microscope you find all kinds of discrepancies.

Case in point: school club activities.

With all this free time students would be having, of course joining clubs (sports, cultural, academic) would seem like an obvious direction many students would take.

I was in a few clubs throughout junior and senior high. I was on the no-cut soccer team in 7th grade, before it became competitive. Then in 8th I tried out for the golf team. That was an utter failure. I did some creative writing, sporadically worked on the yearbook staff, and got hoodwinked into building sets for the school theater productions.

There were also whole chunks of time I wasn’t involved in anything. School would end around 3 PM and I was running out the door, eager to get home, to just chill.

But here in ganbare Japan that luxury doesn’t seem to exist. I’ve been taking informal surveys of my 7th (1年生) and 8th (2年生) grade classes. Of the 35 kids in each class almost all of them are in a school club. That’s a pretty remarkable participation level for something I have been told is voluntary. But social/peer pressure is so intense in Japan that most students, teachers, and parents see not joining a club as some kind of failure.

Remember when Japan stopped holding Saturday classes? Well, guess what replaced that. Club activities. Clubs practice or meet six and sometimes seven times a week. But doesn’t that cut into their study time, you say? Sure. But my kid has to go to juku after school, Japanese mothers will complain. Don’t worry, Japanese schools have a remedy for such concerns: Club practice before school.

You heard me right. Many Japanese school clubs practice/meet before school. Nothing like coming to school before 7 in the morn for some table tennis practice seven days a week. Besides, who needs sleep? “Not the developing minds of teenagers,” said no modern doctor ever.

Have you ever tried teaching 35 unmotivated teenagers first period on a Monday morning? It sucks. Now add some intense one hour basketball drills into the mix just before that. Sign me up!

It all comes down to an almost primal fear of idleness by Japanese society. Every hour needs to be planned out. Should free time protrude into a young person’s life, then a life of crime, drugs, and moral ineptitude will surely take hold.

This literally was once expressed to me by an insane eikaiwa owner. A junior high school student who had been coming to that eikaiwa 5 days a week since she was in kindergarten, happened to be absent from evening class one day. The director pulled me into her office to discuss the “situation with Sakura.” I was perplexed. The director then started reeling off a litany of horrible and destructive life choices that Sakura might be turning to in that 2 hours of freedom. “She could be on drugs!” was the director’s logical conclusion.

Drugs? As if that is even a viable option for a middle school aged girl in Japan from a upper class family. I am not saying it can’t happen, but youth illicit drug use and addiction shouldn’t be the first conclusion one draws for a juku student skipping class. My more reasonable suggestion – that she probable is just getting a little tired of attending the same academy day after day for 12 years – was quickly brushed aside.

So the point is this. We need idleness. Japan needs idleness. It will help the country grow.

What do you think?