The number of anime set in a Japanese middle school or high school is immeasurable. A popular trope in this setting is school clubs. Popular series, such as Fruit basket, Free!!and Kaguya-sama: Love is war, are either centered around school clubs, or have a major plot point involving them. In anime, there seems to be a club for everything — literature, paranormal activity, board games, cycling, surviving a zombie apocalypse and more.
Japanese school clubs, or “bukatsu”, are crucial to life in middle and high school. School clubs are where students make friends and develop skills they will take with them into adulthood. New students are encouraged to join a club at the beginning of the school year, and club attendance is compulsory, depending on the school. Since loyalty and longevity are essential in Japanese society, students are also strongly encouraged to choose a club and stick with it throughout their academic career.
The difference between sports and cultural clubs
Japanese school clubs are divided into two categories – sports and culture clubs. Sports clubs include everything from table tennis and baseball, to martial arts such as kendo and sumo. As Karasuno High Volleyball Club in Haikyuu!! or Kazemai High School Kyudo (Archery) Club i Tsurune, sports clubs often have long and vigorous training schedules and compete in regional and national competitions. Likewise, the over-the-top superpowers and maneuvers in Kuroko’s Basketball may not be set in reality, but sports club students often strive to be recognized on the regional or national stage as a stepping stone to a professional career.
Cultural clubs include everything else – theatre, traditional Japanese cultural activities such as tea ceremonies, flower arranging and dancing. Cultural clubs are usually more laid back than sports clubs, but a few cultural clubs have grueling schedules to prepare for competitions, just like sports clubs. The members of the Kitauji High School Concert Band i Sound! Euphonium practice at school, perform at local festivals and attend band camp to qualify and compete in the national competition.
Some recognizable anime school clubs closer to reality are the Drama Club i ClannadChoir club i Tari Tariand Light Music Club i K-on!. It is less likely to find more unusual clubs such as Megan boo! his Glasses Club, and fans won’t find school clubs like the Host Club at Ouran Academy in real life. But with enough cleverness, students can create almost any club, as long as the school council approves.
The Almighty Student Council
Anyone familiar with school-based anime knows about the almighty student council and its members. Anime student council organizations, such as Hyakkaou Private Academy’s student council i Cake guruhave god-like authority over the school and the student body — but they play a minor role in real life.
In many Japanese schools, student council members are responsible for morning announcements, arranging events such as the cultural festival or field day, and organizing school trips. The student council can also approve or reject applications and funds for clubs, but they don’t have millions of yen to hand out as depicted in the anime. Nevertheless, the student council’s level of importance is entirely based on the school’s culture.
It is important for Senpai to notice
School clubs provide a space for students with common interests, and are considered crucial in shaping them into productive citizens. The structure of school clubs reflects the basic social hierarchy in Japanese society, business and politics – namely the “senpai” and “kouhai” dynamics. Senpai (senior) must teach and take care of kouhai (junior), while kouhai defers to and serves senpai. Since the strong bond between kouhai and senpai is established from the beginning of a new student’s club experience, when a senpai steps away from club activities due to entrance exams or graduation, it is an emotional event. Fans are all too familiar with the tearful goodbye between senpai and kouhai in anime that Fruit Basket (2019) or Haikyuu!!
Although anime fans won’t find clubs like in their favorite series, school clubs are a reality for Japanese students. Students develop social skills, hone their craft and learn to become productive members of society. Some clubs are strict and spend long hours practicing to compete on a national stage, while others are more laid back. Regardless, school clubs can play an important role in students’ lives. Many aspects of school clubs are exaggerated for theatrical effect and entertainment, but there are many things the anime gets right. In reality, school life can be dramatic even without a strange club concept or an overwhelmed student council.