Media watch: Are school-based sports clubs on the way out?

photo: Asahi

As the debate heats up on the government’s desire to increase Japan’s defense budget, some people on social media have been posting a quote by ruling Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker Tomomi Inada from 2016 when she was the defense minister. Inada proposed transferring funds used for the children’s allowance (kodomo teate) to defense, which she reasoned would solve the problem of perceived shortfalls. The children’s allowance is a form of welfare that is available to any household with children that makes up to a certain amount of money, and obviously Inada thought it could be sacrificed on the altar of national security. The people who have posted the meme say that Inada thinks children are less important than Japan’s ability to purchase expensive military hardware from the U.S., and, as a matter of fact, of all the G7 governments, Japan’s spends the least on children and their education. Meanwhile, if the defense budget is increased to 2 percent of GDP, Japan will then be number 3 in the world of all countries in terms of defense spending.

Even when the government addresses issues that directly affect children their priorities can seem skewed. A June 6 article in the financial magazine Toyo Keizai talked about a symposium carried out by a group of scholars and former athletes at the behest of the Japan Sports Agency about the future of junior high school sports. As everyone knows, the birth rate continues to drop year after year, which means school enrollment in most places is also dropping. Dwindling enrollment has already started to affect extra-curricular activities, of which sports is the most prominent. Already, some junior high schools cannot muster enough students to field teams, and so the agency has been trying to come up with solutions. On May 27, the symposium proposed that school sports be moved from schools themselves to regional sports associations. The idea is that individual junior high schools with insufficient enrollment to form sports teams pool their sports-minded students together in regional sporting associations to form regional sports clubs rather than school-based sports clubs. One scholar said that by 2048, on average a boys junior high school baseball team will only have 3.5 members, thus making baseball as a school sport unviable.

According to Toyo Keizai, there are already some 3,600 regional sports associations throughout Japan that have been cultivated by the JSA, as well as other regional clubs operated by private companies. The agency has asked the symposium participants to further discuss the matter of transferring sports clubs from junior high schools over the next three years. The first phase of their work would be a summary of the transfer proposal. The second phase will presumably be coming up with concrete ideas to carry out the transfers. The group admits that such a move will fundamentally change the whole concept of how to develop athletes in Japan, an endeavor that has centered on the school system. Consequently, the third phase, which would be the actual transfer, can only be carried out after problems already facing school sports, mostly of a financial nature, are addressed.

School sports have been on the decline for reasons other than dwindling enrollment. As school resources continue to be cut by the central and local governments, coaching has fallen to teachers who often do not have any experience in the sports they are assigned to supervise. Ostensibly, these teachers are volunteering to coach sports clubs, which means they are likely not being paid extra for the work. Such activities have contributed greatly to burnout, with teachers, whether full-time or part-time, quitting in increasing numbers and seeking work in other fields. Also, fewer university graduates want to be teachers, and the main reason seems to be the pay, which hasn’t risen at all in the last ten years. 

So one of the issues facing the symposium participants is how to assure coaches for these regional sports associations, and who will pay for them. After that, they have to consider proper facilities (at least schools still have gymnasiums and athletic fields, which could be used in some ways), insurance, and aid for lower income student athletes, all of which involves money as well. Many parents who have heard of the transfer plan worry that they will be asked to come up with these costs. As one scholar told Toyo Keizai, the average person thinks that school sports don’t cost anything, but that’s because those costs are incorporated into school budgets, regardless of how much they’ve been cut. So one of the tasks of the JSA is coming up with ways of changing this general thinking. Teachers who now coach school teams and enjoy the work, for example, can probably be recruited to work for these regional associations, but they will have to be paid, and membership fees won’t be enough. 

Both the central government and local governments will have to contribute to such associations if they are to take over the work of training future Olympians and professional athletes, which, for better or worse, is part of the JSA’s job. In that regard, the symposium participants will have to discuss what the purpose of sports associations for adolescents should be. The essential goal of school sports is to win tournaments, whereas the aim of regional sports associations, whether private or public, is to foster athletes, so for the Sports Agency’s purposes, regional associations is a good idea since they cultivate athletes whose personal ambitions are not limited to success during their time as secondary school students. Then again, very few athletes, even those with long-term goals, reach the level of Olympians or professionals. 

Apparently, one of the ideas being floated for funding regional sports associations is to use money from gambling. The idea was mentioned, almost in passing, in an article in the Yomiuri Shimbun published June 7 about the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry’s rough draft of a bill to “lift the ban on sports gambling.” The aim is to “stimulate” sports-related industries by legalizing betting on sporting events. At present, sports betting is only allowed for racing sports, like horses and bicycles. There is also a lottery related to professional soccer matches, but betting on the outcomes of games is prohibited. METI’s reasoning is that Japan is the only G7 country where gambling on sporting events is prohibited, and lots of legal gambling on Japanese games and matches takes place in other countries. Of course, the proposal has met with the usual pushback from people who claim that such legalized betting will lead not only to increases in gambling addiction but to match-fixing. 

Near the end of the article Yomiuri says that some of the revenue derived from sports gambling will go to supporting regional sports associations and sports clubs in junior high schools. Former Olympian Koji Murofushi, who heads the Japan Sports Agency, said at a June 6 press conference, however, that the agency is not yet thinking about using revenues from sports betting for such purposes, though he does mention that there is a tentative plan to “move” school sports clubs to regional association facilities on weekends and holidays. The last word on the topic, at least as far as Yomiuri is concerned, is from Specially Appointed Professor Motohiro Ohashi, an expert on education at Nagoya Zokei University, who believes it is “outrageous” to use gambling revenues to support activities associated with children’s education and says the government should allocate sufficient budget from tax revenues. But, as Inada’s 2016 proposal shows, children have lower priority when it comes to public spending. 

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