Can Clubs Take On the Role of School Sports Teams?

Sports Society Education

A look at the Japan Junior Sport Clubs Association, headed by former Japanese Olympic volleyball star Masuko Naomi. The JJSA works to make sports more accessible to youth throughout the country while reducing the focus on winning at all costs and seeking ways to link community clubs with school teams to keep sports sustainable into the future.

Japan’s Largest Junior Sports Organization

The Japan Junior Sport Clubs Association, or JJSA, is part of the Japan Sport Association (JSPO), which oversees sports organizations throughout Japan. Clubs for children and youth athletes are registered with the organization in nearly 60 different sporting events. As of 2022, there were 27,575 member clubs with 547,415 members in total.

The most numerous sporting events include rubber-ball baseball (a version of the sport played with a softer ball of the same size), soccer, volleyball, basketball, and kendō. Throughout Japan, 1,700 junior sports clubs include multiple sports in each club. There are also junior clubs whose members are involved in cultural activities such as painting, singing, crafts, and regional performing arts.

Clubs throughout Japan are supported by local residents, and in many cases the parents of the players serve as coaches. Children who have reached the age of three (as of April 1 of the year they register with the club) can join, and students in grades 7 through 12 are also eligible. However, as junior high and high school students normally join school-related clubs, most of the members are in fact elementary school students.

Although it is the country’s largest youth sports organization, compared to the past the number of member clubs and individual members has been continually declining. In 2000 the number of member clubs was 34,532 and the number of individual members was 907,963. In just over two decades since then the number of clubs has decreased by approximately 20% and the number of individual members has decreased by approximately 40%. The persistent declining birthrate in Japan is certainly a factor.

“Coaches Mustn’t Display Anger”

As the sports environment for children in Japan continues to deteriorate, the first female General Manager of the JJSA, Masuko Naomi, is known for having been the originator of volleyball tournaments in which head coaches are not allowed to display anger. She implemented this policy as of the 2015 tournament in an effort to prevent children today from having to experience what she experienced as a volleyball player. The rule against displaying anger stipulates that if a coach is witnessed getting angry, Masuko issues a warning during the game. In 2021 Masuko launched a foundation with the same name as her tournament—roughly “Coaches Must Not Get Angry”—in order to provide children with an environment in which they could enjoy sports.

Masuko Naomi (center) has advocated for the eradication of violence in sports guidance based on her own experiences. In October 2021 she and her colleagues presented the Japan Sports Agency with a request to form a specialized organization. (© Kyōdō)
Masuko Naomi (center) has advocated for the eradication of violence in sports guidance based on her own experiences. In October 2021 she and her colleagues presented the Japan Sports Agency with a request to form a specialized organization. (© Kyōdō)

Upon founding her new organization, Masuko said, “Our goal was to run the tournaments in such a way that ten years on, we wouldn’t need this kind of rule. Today, though, the spirit of our key rule has yet to spread widely throughout the sporting world. When I hear news stories on high school students who kill themselves after having been subjected to verbal abuse by coaches during their after-school practice sessions or of students who are injured due to power harassment by coaches, I feel a sense of crisis. It makes me want to redouble our efforts to eradicate violence in sports coaching.”

According to Masuko, there are four things that are lost when anger is involved in sports coaching: students’ enthusiasm to take on new challenges, independence, opportunities to learn, and happy faces. All four of these are essential to children’s growth.

When coaches are obsessed only with the immediate goal of winning, the most important aspect of sports is lost. The declining numbers of children who are members of junior sports clubs is certainly related to the persistence of this old-fashioned method of coaching.

Last year the All Japan Jūdō Federation did away with its national elementary school student tournaments divided by school grade. The tournaments began in 2004, but the AJJF notified its affiliated leagues around the country that it would be doing away with the grade-based tournaments in a statement that read in part: “We have observed that an excessive ‘win-at-all-costs’ attitude has arisen even in the elementary school level tournaments.” There were frequent cases of coaches forcing growing children to lose weight to compete in a lower weight class, as well as cases in which coaches and parents subjected referees to verbal abuse over judgments they had made.

A sense of crisis has permeated the entire world of sporting, as can be seen from what is in common between Masuko’s initiative and the AJJF decision.

Community-Building Through Sports

The problem is not restricted to elementary school students alone. As Masuko points out, physical punishment, verbal abuse, and harassment due to a “win-at-all-costs” attitude is equally persistent in after-school sports teams at the junior high and high school levels as well. At the same time, the fact that teachers who serve as coaches for these teams bear an excessive workload has become a problem throughout Japanese society. In response, as of the 2023 academic year (beginning in April 2023) the national government has begun a program to shift after-school activities to community-based clubs. Initially, the plan was to shift public junior high school after-school clubs to the community for a period of three years, but insufficient numbers of coaches in the community and community-based clubs that could take on this extra work have already confronted the program with serious difficulties.

In light of this, the JJSA devised a plan to resolve these problems in its 2023–27 five-year action plan. In it, the association indicated its intention to “collaborate with junior high sports clubs” and “support efforts by junior sports clubs to shift their activities to the local community.” What lies behind these plans is a sense of responsibility to reform the world of sports.

One issue is whether it would be impossible to create an organizational structure that would allow the activities of junior sports clubs—the bulk of which consist of elementary school students—to continue seamlessly into junior high team sports. Although it would be difficult to hold practices and other activities during the week, school facilities are available over weekends. If coaches and parents in the community were to participate, it would be possible to maintain continuity between elementary and junior high sports activities. It would also be a significant contribution to the kind of “community building” that would create links between children and adults in each community.

The action plan indicates: “As the environment children find themselves in changes, we will increase the number of children active in junior sports clubs as well as the number of people who support their activities based on the basic principles of the JJSA.”

The basic principles this statement refers to are the following three timeless ideals:

  • Provide the joy of sports to more and more young people
  • Nurture the minds and bodies of youths through sports
  • Link people through sports and thereby contribute to community-building

In addition to junior sports clubs, there are also countless numbers of community sporting activities for elementary school age children, including little league baseball, youth soccer, and mini basketball. If these teams and organizations form leagues built around junior high schools, they would not require the sorts of fees charged by “cram schools” or other extracurricular lessons. This then would likely promote the gradual shift of after-school sporting activities to communities. The rules regarding participation in tournaments could then also be changed from the current school-based participation to community-club-based participation.

The Philosophy of Children’s Sports

The JJSA was founded in 1962. The Japan Physical Education Association (the current-day JSPO) was officially founded on June 23 of that same year, just two years prior to the Tokyo Olympics. It was founded to be part of the educational activities associated with the upcoming summer games and given the theme of “Nurturing Healthy Young Bodies and Minds.” (June 23, Olympic Day commemorates the founding of the International Olympic Committee in Paris on that date in 1894.)

Along with the founding of the JJSA, the JSPO also created a committee to discuss the “philosophy” that would become its basic policy. One of the members of this committee was Ōshima Kenkichi, bronze medalist in the triple jump at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics and leader of the Japanese athlete delegation to the 1964 Tokyo games. Subsequently known as the “philosopher of the Olympics,” Ōshima would go on to write and lecture extensively on the need for junior sports clubs. One of his statements from this period of time was the following:

“Human happiness is derived from a healthy mind and body, trust and cooperation between individuals, and studying and working inspired by hope. However, if our material culture develops too rapidly, humans find themselves at the mercy of the machines they have created—and pulled this way and that by those machines, they lose sight of their true nature, their health is ill-affected, and before they know it, they have fallen into unhappiness.”

Although he was involved in the formation of a sports organization for children, the philosophical issue he addressed was human happiness during periods of rapid economic growth. At the root of his concern was the issue of how to raise young people during the development of material culture.

Ōshima continued: “Young people are most important. Youths, who will someday grow into adults, need to have the power to lead full, vigorous lives without losing the sense of who they are no matter what circumstances they find themselves in. And it is up to adults to provide them with the opportunities to develop this ability. To respond to this need, we must provide them with new chances to build this ability on their own. It is this drive that lies at the root of—and indeed is the single reason for—the creation of the Japan Junior Sport Clubs Association.”

Parts of this statement are relevant to our modern society, which is experiencing disruptions caused by the rapid development of artificial intelligence. We need to return to the time when the JJSA was founded to recover the pure joy that sports originally had. We must today reevaluate the circumstances children are in and the education we provide to our young people.

(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo © Pixta.)

education sports youth