When my boys were younger, these are some of the words you could find me shouting at the side of a football pitch (soccer field) most weekends. All four were football mad, so from elementary school they joined a local shōnendan (少年団).
Sports shōnendan are local teams run primarily by volunteer coaches and can be found all over Japan. Some are connected with a primary school, whereas others may draw in children from a variety of schools in the area. Teams compete against each other in local leagues, and try to get to the prefectural (regional) or even national competition. Practices are held three or four times a week after school, with matches at the weekend or during the school holidays.
Joining a shōnendan means a big time commitment for both the children and the parents. On match days parents pull together to provide transport for away games, and for home games parents help out by getting the pitch ready, providing refreshments, and keeping the score. Sometimes a competition can last all day with several different matches taking place. However, I found that spending several hours working alongside the other parents, double high-fiving when our team scored (pre-pandemic!), and commiserating with each other when we lost, was a great way to form friendships. Over the years we were able to invite many of these families to outreach events at church, especially at Christmas and Easter, and many of my sons’ teammates attended my English class where they heard a Bible story each week.
My sons also learned a lot from their experience. Shōnendan are not just a way to play your favourite sport. They are also a place where children can make good friendships, learn to play as a team, to use each other’s strengths, and help cover each other’s weaknesses. They also learn to show appreciation to their coaches and to the parents who help out. At the end of each match the boys would line up in front of the parents. The captain gave a short speech of thanks, and all the boys bowed in appreciation.
I also learned a lot about Japanese culture by taking my part as a parent. Sometimes the parents and coaches would go out for a meal together. This gave a chance for deeper conversations. One question I was often asked was about my relationship with my husband, which my Japanese friends noticed was different from theirs. This gave opportunities to share about our life more deeply with them and show how being a Christian makes a difference.
Although it was a significant time commitment, I will always be grateful for those shōnendan years, for all that we were able learn, as well as the opportunities they provided. It really was a win-win.
By Lorna, an OMF missionary