Clubs and circles play an integral part in the social lives of Japanese university students. Students often join these societies during their first year to pursue their passions and make friends that can last a lifetime. By spending time together and contributing to a group effort, students are able to In Japanese, school clubs are called bukatsu (部活) and circles are called as they are (サークル). Although they possess similarities, each have specific qualities that make them unique from one another.

Similarities and differences:

Clubs in Japanese universities are generally taken much more seriously than circles. They are often sports-related and have the intention to contribute to the prestige of the university. Team members are rarely amateurs and regularly compete with other universities. Rivalries between universities are common: Keio and Waseda have a long history of competition, especially in baseball. Their three-day baseball match in the fall is their biggest event. A tie can result in a rematch on a school day that cancels all classes in both schools! The importance of club activities is also reflected in the rigid structure that many of them possess. Expectations are high for physical performance, punctuality, and social awareness. Practices are held multiple times a week, participation is fully expected, and respecting peers (especially seniors) is of utmost importance. As students get older, their responsibilities and authority increase. The use of formal language (keigo) is expected when juniors (kohai) speak to seniors (senpai). Proper communication between kohai and senpai is highly valued in almost all Japanese social relationships.

Circles, however, tend to take a lighter approach than clubs in regard to interpersonal relationships as well as overall activity. They are considered to be more of a means of entertainment during college life in Japan. Membership is often interest based, in contrast to the ability and experienced based approach that many clubs take. Of course members have varied skill levels, but generally speaking, circles focus on the fun, social aspect of school culture instead of prioritizing rigid rules and expectations. Circles exist for myriad activities ranging from music, sports, fashion design, theater, and more. Many circles host events to showcase their efforts and achievements and often celebrate afterwards at drinking parties (nomikai). These events are also held during sleep-away camps that many circles participate in. Members organize and pay for accommodations for a mini-vacation with their peers while they socialize, practice, and perform for one another, commonly in a remote location in nature.

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Joining a Society:

A promotional event called shinkan (新歓) is held every year during April to invite incoming freshmen to circles and clubs. Application is simple – members set up tables with informative flyers and march around campus with signs, trying to get the attention of as many students as possible. Asking any of these representatives will most likely bring an enthusiastic response as  they answer any questions you may have.

Joining a club or circle is a fundamental part of school culture in Japan and provides students with ample opportunity to engage with their peers while also pursuing their interests. College life in Japan, like anywhere else, necessitates a healthy balance between schoolwork and fun. Clubs and circles enable students to find this balance and build meaningful relationships with members through countless activities, whether it be music, acting, sports, design, writing, dancing, or even just a night out drinking with friends.