This is Part 3 of a five-part series on the role of sports in the lives of Japanese people. It is based on a recent survey conducted by The Asahi Shimbun.
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As mothers stretched and practiced yoga on a recent winter day, in an adjacent playroom babies laughed and cried amid a floorspace crowded with toys and stuffed animals. It's a typical scene at sports club Asupo in Yamakita, Kanagawa Prefecture.
Asupo offers a day care service in addition to sports lessons. In addition to the 2,000-yen ($26) monthly fee, members have to pay extra for day care. But for each time they babysit at the center, they get one day of day care for free.
According to a nationwide poll by The Asahi Shimbun, there are a significant number of women in their 20s, 30s and 40s who want to play sports.
Mothers have various reasons for wanting to play sports. They want to regain the figure they had before giving birth or they want time to release stress from raising a child. But mothers often have a hard time finding babysitters.
Asupo has solved that problem for its members. Of the 250 members, roughly 180 are women in their 30s or older. Many of Asupo's programs were specifically designed for women, such as yoga, aerobics and exercises intended to adjust the pelvis to its correct position.
The mutual babysitting system has also had unexpected results. By caring for other children, mothers have been able to learn about child-rearing and feel less anxious about their own children.
“After seeing other people’s children crying for more than an hour, I no longer panic when my kids cry for long periods of time,” says Kaori Inoue, a 27-year-old mother of three.
Children also benefit. They become less shy thanks to increased exposure to different kids and adults.
A similar system is also used by mothers who play volleyball in Tokyo's Setagaya Ward. The 45 members of amateur volleyball team KNC take turns watching over each other's kids during practice. The members range in age from 30s to 70s. When the team was founded in the 1970s, most of the women joined the team after their kids enrolled in elementary school when mothers had more time for themselves.
But now that women are getting married later and giving birth later, it has become difficult for women in their 30s to join the team. That’s why the team came up with the babysitting system to allow women with young kids to participate.
The system also gives participating children an extended family. Infants, elementary school children and physically challenged children play together during practice.
For these kids, the playmates and babysitters are like siblings and aunts. And the team members do more than just play volleyball. They also go on tours with their children and grandchildren, giving them opportunities to talk about difficult issues such as caring for aging parents or dealing with rebellious kids.
Saeko Terada, 65, who has been on the team for 27 years, says, “This is a small community glued together through volleyball.”
According to The Asahi Shimbun poll, 5 percent of the respondents said that “having daycare facilities” was the “condition for being able to play sports.” That answer ranked sixth among the answers respondents could choose from.
But 19 percent of women in their 30s chose that answer, ranking it in fourth place among that age group. An overwhelming majority of the KNC members said daycare was a condition for playing sports.
Comments by KNC members included, “I don’t have time to join a team that offers mutual babysitting services. But I’d like to enjoy volleyball someplace,” and “I can’t gain the understanding of my family to leave my children in a gym for long periods.”
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