My Japanese primary schools have been holding club activities every other week, starting from October. The clubs run only in the Autumn months and are one of my favourite activities of the school year. They’re like a mini-game versions of the clubs that the kids will be able to join when they graduate into high school. The clubs at primary school, however, are a little more varied than their high school equivalent, from table tennis to cycling, computer club to origami, these schools love their variety- and so do the kids.
This is my second year being involved in the clubs; last year I joined the photography and poetry club (unexpected combo) at one school and at my mountain school, the cooking club.
In last year’s cooking club, we made parfait. We piled ice-cream, fruit and Pocky into a mug and after proudly showing off our creations, got to eat them together in the cookery room. This year, even though I wasn’t a part of the cooking club, I still got a taste. Some of the girls brought their crepes to the teachers’ room and let me choose one. Me being the mature, sophisticated adult that I am, I went for the one with sprinkles.
So why not the cooking club this year?
Well, I decided it was time for a challenge. I used the club as an opportunity to hone a skill that I was once horrific at. Origami. Before this club, I couldn’t even fold a piece of A4 in half properly. Plus, what better way to exchange cultures than to have a whole club of kids using whatever means they can, English and trying to bend your clumsy confused fingers around origami paper included, to teach you a famous Japanese tradition. The first club event, easy to guess, was Halloween-themed. We got to making bats, pumpkins, witch’s hats and spiderwebs and one of the boys even made a coffin! It was so rewarding to bounce into the staff room, like a papered peacock, and show off my creations, much to the other teachers’ excitement.
The next paper-folding theme was Autumn. I made flowers and leaves with the help of my consistent little teacher. She’s in 4th grade and loves to help me, shouting me over as soon as I get to the club-room. Other kids made bugs and one kid even made a golden hamster, and a house for it to live in- it was so fantastically extra.
Our most recent sessions was Christmas origami and these ones were hard! I tried to make a star, even with the help of my little origami teacher, another kid and two teachers it defeated me! I was, however, able to make a Christmas wreath, snowman, some candy-canes, a bow and a very Christmassy ninja star, or shuriken, so I’m writing that as a success.
It’s been slow progress but I think I’ve actually improved, and using Japanese origami books has helped me pick up a little more vocabulary.
This year at my other school, my club choice got perfectly weird. A teacher that I’m pretty close with told me about it in the teachers’ room and asked if I’d be interested. She would be hosting it with another teacher, who I’m also really fond of. At the very mention of the phrase ‘horror club’ I was already in. A group of kids interested in horror, in Autumn, leading up to Halloween, what could be better timed than that?
The clubs took place in the afternoon, after lunch time, during the last two periods of the day. I turned up at the first club meeting to see kids from lots of different classes, mostly 4th grade, with some 5th and 6th (so around 10-12 years old). Safe to say they were excited to see me. This first session was all about ghost stories. The kids brought their favourite scary books, most of them manga and chose a part to read aloud. They loved shoving the scariest pages in my face to see my dramatic 1940’s Hollywood acting.
It was so cool just sitting in a circle watching them read. Most of the time I had no clue what they were saying but glancing at the pictures and the occasional translation from the teacher helped me out a lot. Even without understanding, being able to hear the building of tension and seeing everyone getting more and more excited as the story went on, was so nice to watch. It’s a dynamic that I rarely get to see during English class.
After the kids read their stories I told them the UK classic, the White Lady- complete with pictures pulled from Wikipedia to convince them it was a true story. The White Lady story made a big impact on the kids and they talked about it for the remainder of our club sessions, and in class.
Next session was research. The kids picked their favourite monster and made a poster about them. I was ready again with some UK monsters, including Black Shuck and the Loch Ness Monster. I was happy to find that the kids already knew about ‘Neshy’. One of the boys, pretty infamous in the school for being disruptive but who has found a soft spot for me, chose to do his poster on Black Shuck and when it came to costume making in the next class, made it too!
I was blown away by the creativity of all the kids when they were making costumes. A few Daiso (Japan’s Poundland) bits, binbags, card and markers were enough for every kid to get into it. We had No-Face or Kao- Nashi in Japanese, demons, witches, Frankenstein who turned into a skeleton at the last minute, a zombie, cats and witches; one of the girls even had a spear sticking out of her chest! Watching them make the costumes was almost as good as seeing them strut around the classroom, gothed up and proud.
When it came to the 4th and final club session, these guys were ready. We started off the session with a Halloween presentation and they screamed about how cute kid-Jess was in her little Pikachu outfit and answered my Halloween quiz excitedly. After that they got changed into their costumes.
While they were getting ready me and the teachers went into the spare room down the corridor to prepare for our next activity. We were quick-making a horror house. Using bin-bags, apparently the staple of horror, we blacked out the windows so that the room was pitch black.
Then while the main teacher went back, I changed into the Hermione Granger costume she lent to me (why oh why did I choose to wear bright green that day?) Then I hid with the other teacher, for privacy reasons let’s call her Miss H. The aim of the horror house was to find us and receive a sticker (snacks are too risky with allergies).
The kids came in one at a time and shouted hello, we’d reply with a creepy hello until they found us. As the visits went on, we grew more adventurous. Miss H began rattling the cage that she hid behind and I crawled under a nearby cabinet. I loved how much everyone got into it, Miss H’s cute and high-pitched voice growled like a zombie while I launched scrap paper across the floor in the dark and as the kids walked towards Miss H I’d knock on the wood!
Clearly karma exists as a few minutes later the cabinet I was in fell through. I tried to tell Miss H but couldn’t do it for laughing. When I finally managed to contain my horse laugh and get the words out she didn’t hear me and replied ‘you’re doing so good!’, when I tried again she laughed ‘yes, we’re such a good team!’ which made me laugh even more.
The kids loved the horror house even to the kids who found it scary, and left before getting a sticker. I loved it too, infact I loved the horror club as a whole. It was so much fun and the kids were fully immersed, relaxed and engaged in every activity. A lot of the kids in this club were kids that are usually quiet in class, have special needs or struggle spending too much time in the classroom environment. It was so nice to spend time with them, to get to know them and be able to continue the relationships we started at the club in class.
I was also overwhelmed by how much effort the teachers put into the clubs. They are so busy yet they still manage to give 100% to the club, both in preparation and during activities. It’s also completely paid off by the kids and how much they enjoy it.
The club system is so beneficial for primary school kids. I’ve been able to experience such a variety of clubs, from cooking to paper-folding, horror to photography. I’ve learnt about Japanese folklore and scary stories through the horror club, an absolute passion of mine. I’ve learnt about old-fashioned Japanese toys and games, as it was a theme for one of the photography sessions, and I’ve learned paper-fold myself a ninja star, next up in line is a crane. I’ve learnt so much both about the culture I’m living in, the kids I’m working with and, which came unexpectedly, more about my own interests and passions.
In every one of these clubs the agenda is decided almost wholly by the students. It’s not only insanely fun, but also crucial to have time aside for these kids to put time into something that they enjoy- something that calms them down, that inspires their creativity, gets their blood pumping or just gives them a place to belong. Plus for me, it’s been an opportunity to learn things about Japanese culture that I’d usually have found difficult to access. I’ve always been obsessed with spatiality and the connotations and politics of spaces, and my long-term goal is to create a space for people to feel safe.
I learnt a lot from the space created in the clubs and a part of it will remain in everything that I create in the future.