The Soft Tennis Club

December 12, 2009


In the weird way these sort of things work out, my supervisor canceled the weekly meeting at city hall. Meaning my usual luxury of getting to leave work two hours early vanished. With an additional 120 minutes to contractually fill (the horror!) and nothing to work on, I expected to fill my time refreshing music websites and organizing music on my computer. Then salvation came, in the form of a tennis racket.

“Do you want to play soft tennis?” One of the Japanese teachers who has talked to me a lot at this high school asked me this after school. With nothing else on my schedule, I agreed. Thus begins my life on a girls junior high soft tennis team.

Excluding Wii Tennis (which I am technically an expert at, according to the console), my only tennis experiences come via an hour spent playing at a park in Oxnard when I was 13 and an ill-fated session of “night tennis” in college. Thankfully, this wasn’t just any game of tennis – Japanese junior high school seem to only play a “soft” version of tennis. Instead of a yellow ball, they use a squishy ball that’s more like a pet toy than a piece of athletic equipment. Everything else about the game remains the same, except the ball doesn’t move nearly as fast. This means I can actually return the ball and look halfway decent, since the game has been slowed down about 45 percent. Just perfect!

The club practices on the same dirt field every athletic team plays on. The team consists of about 20-or-so first or second year students – the number would be a bit higher except all third year students are officially banned from afterschool activities as they need to be studying for the big high school entrance exams coming up in February. Nevertheless, the club carries on.

The students reacted the same way most junior high aged kids react when they see me enter their classroom: shock (“aaaaaaaaaah Patrick!”) followed by excitement (“ahhhhhhhhhh Patrick!”). Armed with a borrowed blue racket, I began practicing with them. And it quickly became clear I had no idea what I was doing.

I was placed on the “return” side of the net, meaning I’d be hitting back student’s serves. “Return” quickly morphed into “smack the soft ball over the fence or into the drainage system inconveniently placed next to the court.” On the rare occasion I cleanly hit one back, the students reacted if I had just won Wimbeldon – they clapped and shouted “Good Job!” for every routine return I miraculously got over the net. The only time I drew louder applause was when I said something in Japanese – this absolutely floors students who go bananas for it. The only flaw; I’m more or less at a three-year-old’s level of Japanese comprehension, so most of the time whatever I say makes the students burst out laughing. For example, the word for “close” (as in “your show was so close to not hitting the net Mr. Patrick”) sounds a lot like the word for “delicious” in Japanese. Being an ignoramus, I said the latter, which had the students in stitches and then jokingly saying “oishee” whenever they hit the net. Solid start!


Soft Tennis Club contains a little more structure than the table tennis club I’m also part of, but not much. Whereas the kids just play games of table tennis, the soft tennis students have some semblance of practice. They just don’t have structure. They do one practice for twenty minutes, then everyone decides “OK, lets try something else now.” This isn’t your boot-camp-like American sports practice, but more of a way to keep kids in school after school so they don’t do bad stuff like…hang out at the convenience store? Watch too much TV? Nabari isn’t South Central, the scariest thing I can think of is the existence of wild monkeys. And even that’s kind of cool.

On the court, my skills improved drastically from the day before. I still hit the net frequently and the concept of “out of bounds” lines still needs to sink in. But I somehow developed a backhand game overnight and could even serve the ball without major incident. Suddenly, the only thing the students laughed at was my Japanese skills, and not my tennis abilities. Ahhhh, what practicing a sport with tweenage girls can do.

The biggest perk to being part of the soft tennis club is the chance to spend more time with my students, who aren’t just miles away cooler than the American students I’ve worked with before but also a large share of people in general. And by cooler, I of course mean “willing to throw praise at me.” When they ask “do you have a girlfriend” and I respond “no,” they flip out and seem like this should be an impossibility. Compare that to my American students from a year ago who would have launched into “Mr. Patrick is clearly gay mode” and then hit me with sticks (those two things aren’t related, by the way). Or other people at Northwestern, who would never have asked that question in the first place and just assume things (oh, and my personal favorite, someone once calling me “the least sexual person they had ever met.” Seriously, you wonder why I left America?).


A steady downpour of rain prevents the soft tennis club from meeting today. Instead, they’ll do training, which the teacher explains to me via hand motions will include “push ups” and “jumping off of walls.” I go off to find the club.

I found two members of the club and try to explain that I will be training with them today. They have not gotten the memo about this. They think I’m there to play tennis. I try explaining that I know there will be no tennis, but I will still train with them. “Train” was not one of their vocabulary words. I try a few other words for it, to no avail. I’m forced to break out the charades, and after some awkward wordless communication, they figure out what I’m trying to say. They tell me “we will play tennis next week” and wave me off to the teacher’s room. Since I’m not insane (“no, I MUST run laps around the junior high”), I go back to the office.

Then I feel something I haven’t felt in a bit in Japan: absolute lost-in-translation confusion. Clearly, the teacher didn’t tell the students, so they were confused and thus told me there was no tennis that day. Problem is…everyone seems a bit off page from one another. I spend the next three hours sitting at my desk trying to figure out if the teacher in charge of the club is angry at me for not going on Friday or whether she’s just very busy. This is one of the few moments I’ve felt completely lost, as I have no idea how to figure these things out in Japan and there isn’t really anyway to talk to anyone about this. It’s probably the lowest I’ve felt at school since coming to Japan…and I have no idea if I’m justified in feeling that way or just crazy.

Well, club meets again Monday. Hopefully I’ll still have the opportunity to practice my wicked backhand.


One Response to “The Soft Tennis Club”

  1. Spencer said

    Heh. Tree-year-olds do suck at Japanese.

    Are the kids as serious about soft tennis as they are about ping pong?

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