Being the only Japanese-speaking foreign manager on Osaka University’s swim team

Trials and tribulations

I joined the swim team in my freshman year in late 2020, months after most people in my grade had joined the team. I did not know how to swim and to this date cannot swim. I had no knowledge of the sport and the sole reason why I had joined the club was because I was bored and therefore, wanted to meet new people. 

But I had no idea how demanding a club can be. I had never been on any of my school’s sports teams so I had a hard time imbibing the culture of 部活 (bukatsu or club). The culture of bukatsu constitutes a myriad of rules and traditions that did not make much sense to me at first. We all signed up to do this for fun, yet we are held to a very high standard and are expected to be very punctual and disciplined. We have to call in sick, we have to send out an apology email if we ever show up to practice late. We get 5 vacation days and if we ever want to take time off then we have to inform the administration beforehand. We often go to other prefectures for meets which takes up a lot of our time. We also have intensive practice during the long breaks (i.e, spring and summer). All of this seemed really taxing at first. I grew up in India where I had never participated in team sports. When I moved to Japan at 15, I attended an international school where a lot of my teachers and friends were either westernized or from Western countries. Thus, even though I spoke Japanese fluently I either did not understand social cues rooted in Japanese culture or did not agree with them.

What further exacerbated the situation was the tasks that we were told to perform. I found them to be difficult because we are expected to be meticulous, and very precise. The managers in my grade got the hang of it in a short span of time and exhibited dramatic improvement while I was still struggling to do basic calculations. Senior managers would give them brief walk-throughs of tasks and they would catch on. However, it would take me longer to comprehend things, and only after practicing several times would I be able to perform tasks relatively flawlessly. It took me more than a year to finally stand on my own two feet and to come into my own as a manager. 

Learning, understanding, and imbibing 

With time I slowly realized that the club is run like a workplace and that warrants implementing stringent rules. To function like a well-oiled machine it is also imperative that members abide by said rules. A turning point for me was at one of the big meets when our college came in first. Suddenly the rules made sense. The swimmers were going up on the podium to receive awards but I knew it was both our hard work that brought our goals to fruition. These moments are always bittersweet because managers don’t get awards for crunching numbers and for aiding swimmers in their endeavors. But this taught me to find contentment in intangible rewards. I had gotten better at my job and I had become a resilient, adaptive, and persevering person. My time management and communication skills improved. I had become more assertive and brave. I also became a kinder person and learned the value of altruism. These are skills are undisputedly valuable and make an individual socially desirable. 

I also learned how difficult it is to run an organization with a diverse student body. I am a sociology major and I could see my textbooks come to life at club elections and policymaking meetings. I got a glimpse into the complex inner workings of an organization. Factionalization is unavoidable and policies will always polarize members. Only negotiating can peacefully resolve conflict. It can be uncomfortable to have discussions with people whose political views might be antithetical to mine but people can always try and find a middle ground. I also learned that for a democracy to function smoothly it is imperative that members hold leaders accountable. 

Therefore, my teammates did not just inculcate time management and people skills in me but also exhorted me to be a compassionate and understanding person. I learnt the important of cultural and moral relativism. I learnt to put other people’s needs before mine and put myself in their shoes before making snap judgements. I am glad I joined the swim team and stuck it out till the end.