Clubs, Circles and other Cults

If extracurricular activities were a way of life in highschool, they’re nothing less than organized religion in Japanese Universities. 

Stumbling home at ten in the night and passing by the campus, I’d catch sight of preppy, uniformed girls from one of Waseda's million elite sports teams, returning to Tokyo with perfectly matching luggage sets after winning some tournament in another city, their hair and makeup still flawless as they congratulated each other and scheduled their next practice. 

I’ll never be like that, I thought with a shudder of revulsion, Let me enjoy some freedom at last. 

My resolve didn’t last. 

‘Freedom’ quickly rotted out to become something along the lines of ‘Vast and Unstructured Intervals of Wasted Time’ and the only skill I developed was an affinity for immense guilt and loneliness, while people I knew posed for group Instagram photos with interesting props like Kendo sticks (martial arts), Shamisens (music), clay pots (tea ceremony) and blonde wigs (Drama). 

Hence in the April of my second semester when Waseda’s extra-curricular clubs, circles, teams and organizations all rose in the teeming millions to draw in members from the influx of fresh-faced new students, I decided to search myself a place as well. 

The first club I looked for on the packed and cheering campus was a music group.

“I like to sing sing music,” I announced in broken Japanese as I pranced in. Two ultra-cool seniors exchanged a look, nodded, and one of them unloaded a forest’s worth of pamphlets onto me, while the other one delivered a verbal orientation in rapid fire Japanese.

“Thank you for your interest in our community we are a passionate group of individuals who love music and wish to share our passion with others thank you for joining we look forward to cooperating with you we have our first demonstration performance at five thirty today at the Toyama Campus please come there when you can and you’ll see us holding a sign with the name of our club and you can meet us there and also please bring drinks since you’re a new member.”

“I’m a minor, I can’t buy alcohol,” I protested in English, reeling from the complexity of it all. The seniors looked at each other again and then shrugged.

“FivethirtytodayatToyamaCampusandpleasebringdrinks,” the senior repeated.

“Sure,” I said…..and never went. I hope they were stone cold sober that night. 

 

 

While exiting the University, I was stopped again.

“You wanna drink all over Tokyo?” someone demanded in English, holding a paper to my face, “We’re a party circle.”

“No, thank you,” I snapped. What is with this country and drinking? Judging by the way these recruiters were shiftily waiting just outside the official campus premises like vampires that hadn’t been invited in by their victims, I guessed that they were one of those shady unofficial circles that tried to lure in students by pretending to be Waseda endorsed.

I hadn’t taken another ten steps when I was stopped again.

“Good afternoon. Do you read the Bible?” A woman asked, “Do you have Faith?”

“Me no have English,” I replied dryly.

“Do you speak Japanese?” She asked, “French? Spanish?”

“No, I don’t” I retorted, and then winced at my stupidity as a beaming grin spread across her face, “Oh, damn…..excuse me.”

I took a sharp about turn and ran back to Waseda, hoping to escape into a library somewhere. 

I made the mistake of passing through a corridor of hundreds of cheering and recruiting clubs and was showered with more sheets of colored paper than a pole dancer. I emerged on the other side completely disheveled and exhausted, holding about four dozen brochures and flyers in a language I could barely read. 

Safely within one of Waseda’s buildings, I set the stack down and tried to catch my breath.

“Hello!” A senior beamed, “You’re looking for clubs too? I’m particular interested in traditional Japanese dance but can’t find any….”

“I know one!” I exclaimed and lugged the pile of papers with a groan, “Here, no need to thank me!”

Shoving everything into his arms, I fled. 

***

After recovering for a day or two, I took hostage another senior who was fluent in Japanese and hissed at anyone who so much as waved a flyer in my face until we struggled through the crowd to reach a recruiting karate club. 

“We train three times a week together,” the stern faced senior said to my Japanese speaking prisoner, while looking me over, “Here’s our information, our fees, the schedule and the time commitments she’ll have to make.”

“I have classes in all those times,” I said, peeping out from behind my senior’s coat before going back into hiding. 

“She has classes during those times,” my senior repeated.

The karate master gave me a startled look and staring at his biceps, it dawned on me that Karate probably came first in life while a mixture of reading and good food was probably my top priority. This wouldn’t work out.

We politely excused ourselves. 

“This is Japan, you’ll find lots of Karate groups,” my senior assured me as I winced at my pathetic vocabulary of about two hundred words, “Don’t lose hope so quickly.”

Someone began screeching above us and I glanced up to see a red-faced leader from one of the Rock-climbing clubs in full harness and hanging upside down off the tallest tree on campus and shrieking his club’s introduction from up there as everyone whipped their phones out. Good marketing, indeed. 

“Oh my God,” I breathed, gazing up at the “This is madness.”

And that’s when I had my epiphany. 

I couldn’t just walk into this univers(ity) of madness while expecting to find a pre-made place carved out just for me. I had to twist myself into some dangerous contortions and prove that I was adaptable enough to enter the insanity, and worthy to become part of it myself.

I had to surprise myself.

“I want to talk to that Karate circle over there,” I decided inside one of the Waseda lounges and pointed at a group of young men sitting quietly with a giant hand-painted banner, “Umm….that is the kanji for ‘karate’, right?”

“You’re right,” my senior said, “Let’s go.”

This time, I didn’t hide behind my senior but sat beside her as we had a half-formal interview with the leaders. She didn’t translate fully, but just enough for me to get the gist of what was being said. This circle had flexible practice times, an equal boy-girl ratio, a good legacy, strenuous training and some foreign members as well.

“We won’t call you to our practice sessions and events,” the senior warned at the end, “You’ll have to call us and confirm yourself.”

I understood the silent message.

You need to take the initiative.

Well, I’d come to Japan on my own for University. Initiative wasn’t a huge problem there. 

“Looks like you found your Karate circle,” my senior said breezily and stood up, leaving me drenched in perspiration, “Good luck!”

After she left, the atmosphere was charged with an unearthly mixture tension and second-hand embarrassment while we waited around for more applicants before heading out to the drinking party that all clubs traditioanlly had to welcome new members.

The efforts my future seniors took to accommodate me were amazing in their own unique way: Some of them violently acted out what they were trying to say. Others inserted English into the question to hear my stilted Japanese reply. Few more used basic phrases they knew I was sure to have learned and worked upwards from there. 

The drinking party was loud, the food never seemed to end, all the resturants in town were packed with Waseda students and everyone was laughing at top volume and I couldn’t understand anything. However, when the time came to pay, I meekly went up to one of the seniors with my wallet. While everyone else was slightly drunk, I was wired up on coffee (minor, remember?) and took a deep breath.

I had rehearsed what I wanted to say:

“I really enjoyed this meal and getting to know everyone. I look forward to the upcoming Karate practice sessions with my seniors. Thank you for accommodating me with so much patience despite my poor Japanese skill. May I contribute to this meal in some way, please?"

This is what actually came out:

“Really good food it was. My Japanese horrible but everyone gentle. I want to do Karate seniors. Thank you, thank you. I pay too, please?”

I wanted to die right there, but they thought I was adorable and someone shook their head and a few others made giant X’s with their arms to emphasize the point. I insisted but caught a few words about 'Seniors taking care of juniors' and was gently chased back to my seat and had a glass of ginger ale pushed into my hands. Someone smiled at me and I returned the gesture. The first training session would be in a week. I dreamed of myself practicing in a pristine white uniform and going out with my friends in the evening after a hard day of beating things up and throwing punches. Maybe even pick up a few more words of Japanese.

I could get used to this, I thought, and drained my glass. 

 

***

Cut to 6 months later

Reality was much different.

“When you’re doing this particular stance,” my senior says, “Use the upper portion of your heel more than the foot while kicking, to avoid injury. Also, keep your back straight. Imagine a stick running through the central part of your body and don’t bend forward. Twist from your waist for more speed. Take one more try.”

“Bending forward is forbidden,” I clarify, craning my neck to peer up at him, my right leg dangling at a ninety degree angle in the air, “Also, I kick with my upper heel part and not the foot. And twist. Is that right?”

“Correct! Just like that!”

I let fly a kick at the padded shield he holds up for me and get a nod of approval.

“Your form is much cleaner now,” he says as I bow, thank him and step out of line.

“So is your Japanese,” someone adds.

Dodging compliments as well as kicks comes to me a lot easier now.

“All due to you,” I say, “But still a long way to go.”

“Are you coming to the practice on Christmas Eve?” A senior asks me during the water break.

“Looking forward to it!” I reply.

Practicing Karate on Christmas Eve would strike many as a torturously unromantic way to spend the glittery and cozy holiday of affection where lifelong memories are made under the gleaming stars and gauzy lights, but spending it in shared hard work with some of the most patient teachers and friends I’ve ever been fortunate to meet is my ideal way of celebrating the holiday in Japan.

Yes, I'm slowly being drawn into another culture's mindset, aren't I?

“Finally, I get to play Karate!” one of my classmates in the circle cheered after a long day of lectures and more or less flew to the practice room with her bag of gear. 

“Play Karate? I asked dumbfounded, to her vanishing shadow, and remembered all those training students from different circles you’d see in the Student Union Building and practice rooms, either swinging each other across dance floors, stringing instruments, boiling tea, diving into pools or leaping off walls, catching naps in the hallway between rehearsals or heating up cup ramen at unearthly hours of night. And of course, the "Ganbatte!"'s and "Otsukaresama!"'s ringing through the air. 

How stressed does your life have to be to see formal Karate training as a way to relax?

The idea entices me, though: Working and pushing myself to reach that ultimate level of productivity in this new country while taking on the linguistic challenges and smashing cultural barriers at the same time.

Can I do it?

That’s an easy question to answer.

From the very first moment I entered Waseda’s surreal world of extracurricular activities and until I’m carried somewhere else, that’s all I mean to do.