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Sunday, Feb. 18, 2007
Close your eyes, count to 10 . . . and play to your heart's content
It seems only natural that everyone should have a wild time, at least once in their life, because for the most part our mortal span is occupied with studying, making a living or raising a family. All that, of course, can be fun -- but it tends to be rather serious stuff as well.
For many people in Japan, their wild time comes during their student days. Although the nation's universities are sometimes dubbed as little more than "leisure centers," who can blame students there for wanting to let their hair down for those few years -- whether by throwing themselves into a theater group, windsurfing and working on their tans . . . or whatever.
After all, most of those students will have crammed like crazy to get into the best university possible, and when they leave the best that many can hope for is to face the prospect of a slavelike job in a Japanese company.
But as wild as some students may be, the sheer passion that members of Kakurembo Dousoukai put into their craziness is overwhelming.
Literally translated as "Hide-and-Seek Reunion," the members of this Waseda University club in Tokyo risk not only their reputations but even their graduation credits to -- wait for it -- play hide-and-seek to their hearts' content.
"People think hide-and-seek is for children," said 19-year-old Newton Hakushi-yaku. "I wanted to keep playing it, but there was no environment for me until I joined this club. It's too bad that once you've grown up, you have to take care of your public image."
Newton's is clearly a widely shared sentiment, since in spring 2006 some 140 freshmen applied to join Kakurembo Dousoukai -- of whom just 90 were accepted after completing severe oral and written tests. These included counting all the Chinese characters meaning "hide" in a University of Tokyo entrance exam paper, and writing an essay describing what a devastating inferno would be like.
There are currently 170 members in the club, and another 70 graduates who still attend its events.
Omoiyari, another 19-year-old member, recalled her experience during her exam.
"I had to start from looking for the right exam room out of more than 30 club rooms, as the exam was also 'hiding.' It had been a dream for me since high school to join the club, so I desperately wanted to pass," she said.
To try to boost her chances, Omoiyari said that when she applied to join she even showed a hide-and-seek certificate she got in high school when she attended a Kakurembo Dousoukai event at a Waseda University festival.
Meanwhile, as perceptive readers may already have sensed, such names as Newton Hakushi-yaku and Omoiyari were never bestowed by their parents. In fact, club members are required to hide their real names, even from each other, and only ever use code names -- aliases that will be with them for life, and which are determined by club officials from their character.
In Newton Hakushi-yaku's case, his intriguing handle derived from the fact that he is a science and engineering student who likes to read the physics magazine Newton -- and also because he could not respond to any of the physics questions in a University of Tokyo exam, and handed in a hakushi (blank sheet).
Oh, and besides real names being kept hidden, a person's membership is as well, so neither family or friends are supposed to know someone belongs to Kakurembo Dousoukai.
Once all these hurdles are overcome, club membership opens up a broad array of activities.
To begin with, there's a hide-and-seek event every month, comprising two hourlong sessions in locations such as parks or department stores.
Then, every summer, there is a national hide-and seek championship in the town of Onsen-cho in Hyogo Prefecture. This event, joined by a dozen groups of students and working people from all over Japan, is "very important for the hide-and-seeking world," according to Setouchi Jackson, the club's 20-year-old representative and an advocate of hide-and-seek becoming an official Olympic sport.
But the most demanding challenge facing hide-and-seekers comes in December -- and it's called SENSO (WAR). In this, Kakurembo Dousoukai members must hide for one whole month, 24 hours a day except Wednesdays, when the club holds its working committee.
With the players divided into six teams of 13 members each, points are awarded depending on how many times other team members are touched (the more the better), where they are touched (the further away from the university the better), and when (the later in the day the better). To keep it sporting, however, tag-touches are banned during university lectures, or while players are working at their side jobs. But that's not to say a tagger might not be waiting right outside the classroom or workplace.
"In the end, we start skipping classes and quitting our side jobs. Flunking a year is common in this club . . . about 10 percent of members flunk each year for missing their credits," said Jackson.
Adding that during the WAR, families accuse members of acting ridiculously and landlords are likely to report them for suspicious conduct, he said, "Terrorism is also common during the WAR. If you don't like cucumbers, there may be a carpet of cucumbers in front of your home one morning.
"But that's more to provoke you than to catch you."
Trickery and intelligence-gathering activities are mandatory, and disguises can also be effective, he said.
"I once pretended to be a dead body, scattering fake blood and a toy knife around me. But that hiding technique was to get a laugh, of course," Jackson said.
On the other hand, Newton said that when a female student dressed up as a maid and walked graciously with a balloon down Nakano's Broadway (where there are many maid cafes), she blended into the scenery so well that she went unnoticed.
"Those who are good are really great hiders. They get our heartfelt respect," he said.
He also said that during the 2006 WAR, he detected that a member was planning to flee the country, so he raided Narita Airport with 10 others and caught the student right before immigration.
To really keep members on their toes, the club constantly comes up with new hide-and-seek rules across the range of its game levels, from level 1 to level 4. Apparently, Level 1 is the standard game for 3-year-olds and up, but others, such as "personality interchange hide-and-seek" or "Yamanote Line hide-and-seek" are ranked in Levels 3 and 4, with qualifying ages of 14 and 18 respectively.
But members are careful not to annoy others, especially when playing in public.
In a list of rules for a game in Ikebukuro's Seibu department store, for example, there is a caution about the 6th floor being "upmarket."
"We make sure not to cause annoyance to people. Being professionals, we can even hide without being detected by shop clerks," said Jackson.
But what makes hide-and-seek so addictive to these Waseda types?
One reason is certainly the penalty system awaiting losers.
After the 2005 WAR, the team that lost -- which was hiding in the hot-spring mountain resort of Hakone in Kanagawa Prefecture -- was made to run the 130 km back to their central Tokyo university.
Similarly, Omoiyari and Jackson, whose team lost the 2006 WAR, have just attended a camp in which they had to fast for three days while watching other members gulp down sumptuous meals.
On the other hand, each year's individual champion -- determined by the number of "dream points" (winning points) he or she accumulates -- gets one dream fulfilled by the rest of the members.
"One time, a member asked for a fancy-dress ball; another time, a real mud-play frolic in a rice field. Of course, all members joined to fulfill their dreams," said Jackson.
But is it because they are privileged students at the prestigious, private university of Waseda that hide-and- seekers can afford to flunk a year if they wish? Or could it be that they have some sort of Peter Pan complex, a wish to not grow up and join mainstream society?
Unfazed, members replied calmly to these barbed inquiries.
"I don't think that people flunk because they can afford to. I think it's just that the club is too much fun and so they happen to neglect to study," Jackson said.
"I don't think we have the desire to remain children," Newton said. "By adding new ideas to it, I believe what we play is adult hide-and-seek."
"Hobbies for adults are often expensive, and tend to be made by others -- so there's no independence. But we create rules from scratch and make it extremely flexible and creative . . . it's the roots of enjoyment.
"Even after I start working and have to wear a suit, I want to keep seeking such enjoyment and pass it on to my children.
It's about the palpitating feeling while hiding, the bitterness when found, the intense fulfillment when I get away until the end -- it's something that you can never truly experience in your everyday life."