Student clubs in Japanese Universities

In Japan all universities and secondary schools have extracurricular clubs (Bukatsudou). Student clubs can be divided into sports clubs (undou-bu) and culture clubs (bunka-bu). Student clubs originated over a hundred years ago and are now an integral part of Japanese secondary and post-secondary student life. All clubs are free of charge, the university provides the venue, the students buy their equipment or raise money if they need something for their club. In general, there is at least one practice session a week but each club has it’s own practice times, durations and style. Club activities are organised on a regular basis and involve either the specific sport (competitions between universities) or else social activities such as drinking (nomikai).

Joining a club is a voluntary decision but most students do so in order to have some sort of social life in an otherwise monotonous study routine. Belonging to a group is very important for students especially since they are mostly living alone and sometimes very far from their families. Many students form a strong emotional attachment to their club. However, clubs can be very demanding in terms of time, energy, and commitment leaving very little free time.

The system by which such clubs work is very similar to an apprenticeships in which the seniors (senpai) teach the juniours (kohai) not only the art or sport but also the running of the club and in so doing ensure the continuation and prosperity of the club for future generations of students. Members in a club can be divided into the practitioners and the managers. While the practitioners focus on training and the managers focus on the running order of the training sessions (including time keeping, preparing drinks, handing out towels).

The senpai-kohai relationship is an integral part of all clubs. Most importantly all kohai bring respect to their senpai both in and out of the dojo. For example in a kendo club, kohai should arrive early to make necessary preparations such as opening doors and windows, clean the dojo floor, attend to the needs of any visitors, and ensure that everything in the dojo was in order. In some cases senpai might carry out some chores but it is always polite for kohai to insist and take over such tasks from their senpai.

On the other hand a good senpai should not only correct his/her kohai but should also be encouraging and easy to talk to when one has a problem. They should be reliable, think of others, do a proper job of teaching kohai the techniques, and create a good atmosphere both during training and social gatherings. The role of the senpai can be summed up as ‘severity in kindness’ (yasashisa no naka ni kibishisa ari).

These clubs are a good preperation for adult life and work society by providing personal, social, and moral development through improved social skills, responsibility, self development, dedication, perseverance, commitment and team spirit, promoted through ritual and routine. There is also a spiritual aspect (seishin kyouku) involved in most of these clubs.