23 April 2016

Sayōnara 日本!

This blog is no longer active because (sadly) I left Japan in 2011. Since then I've been blogging for the Irish Feminist Network.

28 June 2011

Debating Culture Shock

I've gotten involved in coaching the Japan World Schoolies, the Japanese team going to the World Schools Debating Competition (WSDC) 2011 in Scotland. It came about very randomly...

A month or so after arriving in Japan, it occurred to me that as I was teaching my students debating anyway, why not enter them in some competitions? Finding the relevant info in English was a struggle. Even the Prefectural Board of Education had to scramble for it when I requested their assistance. Eventually I found a Japanese website and using Google translate (official sponsor of my low motivation to study Japanese), I could sort of read it. It turned out to be too late to enter my kids in the 2010 Prefectural competition...boo...

A few months later it occurred to me to email the Japanese debating powers that be, to see if I couldn't become involved in some other way. I contacted all kinds of random people. I would comb past WUDC tabs, deciphering abbreviations to find the Japanese universities who had sent teams. Then I'd comb their institutional websites for information on the English department. Finally, all the English staff with readily accessible email addresses were bombarded with emails, albeit apologetic and pleading ones. If you're not the person responsible, could you PLEASE direct me to the person who is?...0 response.

The hook that took was a message I sent to a man involved in the All-Japan high schools debating competition. I'd volunteered to help coach the team that had (already) been chosen for WSDC 2011. My orignial message was fairly presumptuous. Suffice to say I exaggerated my university debating success...impling that I was a complete hotshot without actually naming anything I had (not) won. He replied a few months later and in fact apologised for the delay, to which my response was, 'Well it's awfully decent of you to get back to me at all, complete sham face that I am for having cold-written you in the first place'.

From him, I got the email address of the amazing Japan WSDC team coach, and she allowed me to visit them in the (not too inconveniently located) city of Urawa, Saitama Prefecture. Yes, I spend much of that Saturday on the Shinkansen but it literally could not have been more worth it! The team is a really smart group of 1 2-nensei and 3 3-nensei girls. I've visited them twice more since and am consistently blown away by their English ability and general smarts. In truth, I'm also pretty chuffed that they're all girls...I mean how unlikely was that? Not that it matters, and it didn't occur to me until a while after I first me them, but it is statistically not what you'd expect. Yay!

In all in anyways, a few prep sessions later I finally got to meet the coach who'd allowed me access to these lingual prodigies. She told me about the Japan Parliamentary Debating Union's Pre-Australs 2011 tournament, which was held last Sunday, June 26th. (I can only hope my preference for the American date format will fade when I leave Japan!) In an incredible display of good faith, she put in a good word for me with the organisers and I judged at it. The incredulity of the faith was due to my never having seen, let along adjudicated an AustralAsian style debate. Nevertheless, I gathered up my complicated directions to the Yagami Campus of Keio University, Kanagawa Prefecture and was on my way...

...to debating culture shock!

The first divergence from the familiar inter-varsity format of previous competitions I've attended was the schedule, which rather than being a black and white page filled with boring, practical info, was a choice of 3 adorably coloured and illustrated booklets. Totemo kawaii deshita ne! Needless to say I choose the most pink one before proceeding inside to the base lecture hall.

The lounging around with between 50 and 100 people waiting for the competition to commence was pretty much exactly like being at an Irish competition. Of course, I recognised less people and more of them were Japanese. Shock number two was when I looked at the list of teams including names printed in the booklet...how convenient (Note to Irish debate conveners: HOW CONVENIENT). It avoids those unnecessary 'how do you spell that?' questions that chair judges have to ask speakers. Also, 'what is your name?' if they're happy to guesstimate who is who on the team and risk mixing up speaker points (which barely matter anyway).

Anyway, during my perusal of the delightfully formatted participants list, I found the names of two veteran British debaters. Eeeeeeeeeeee? But yes indeed, they were speaking in the competition! Having arrived in Tokyo the previous day and being booked to teach an AustralAsians boot camp for Japanese debaters, they'd been encouraged to speak at Pre-Australs. It was incredibly weird to randomly meet people I recognised from home in Japan. That just doesn't happen in a country this big with so few British and Irish people. Then again, I suppose the international debate circuit's a bit odd. It's a pretty big internationalising force..like I suppose any major international community with a common pastime and an international competition.

It was a twisted kind of culture shock I felt then. Something like...you're not supposed to be here, you're Caucasian and not American/Canadian. You're not speaking slowly all the time as if explaining something to a non-native speaker. You don't pepper your speech with Japanese terms that you don't think of as actual Japanese, but are in fact Japanese and as such can't be understood by English speakers who don't live in Japan ( like genki, enkai, combini, chou-hai, onigiri, kawaii, otsukaresma, so desu ne, hontou ni, atsui and so on)...but wait, wasn't I like that once? Cue defamiliarisation.

Fourthly (I think that was three), the motionS were released. Yeah with an S. In Australs style there's one fairly general theme (like cross border activities, social media, outside vs. inside), and 3 motions which the two teams in each room vote to decide between. These are mad times we live in, mad! I'm used to that whole: get THE motion, mull over THE motion preempting the debate, listen to a debate on THE motion, dissect the debate on THE motion. With 3 I usually wasn't sure what would be debated until the first speaker took the floor. This led to a mixture of emotions such as relief..it's not that god-awful 1st one, and annoyance...it's not that super-interesting 3rd one, as well as a healthy unpreparedness for each debate I heard. Having said that the judging went OK.

Food-wise, there was no food. Strangely, for Japan there was not a combini in striking range. It was exactly like the whole 'college SPAR's closed on Sundays, sorry lads you'll have to starve' Irish IV conundrum. Also, we couldn't eat or drink inside, AND people heeded this advice. I had to hide the large ice-mocha I'd brought from Doutor under the bench when they mentioned that at the adjudication briefing.

Finally...and this was definitely the greatest debating shock, I got to judge the final. Again, I got to judge the final of a national tournament, the style of which I had only first encountered that very day! I could think of nada to be announced about me. Somehow 'She once won an internal Phil competition' or 'She reached the Irish Times Semis twice' didn't seem to cut it. In the end, it was announced that I was coaching the WSDC kids (true) and that I would be competing in WSDC for Japan myself (false and impossible)...people seemed surprised that me, a gaijin teacher was competing on the Japanese national high schools debating team, and so they should have been. I would have been a heavy burden for the girls!

In the final analysis, it was a fun day. With many shocking aspects, but many more that were familiar. It seems that debating cultures, like national cultures, are more alike than unalike after all.

(Wait I forgot, there were no POIs?!?!?...I take it all back. Australs is bizarre.)

16 May 2011

Searching for a Dream: Spotlight on Night School

This is an article I wrote for the Shizuoka Chronicle vol. 24, 2011, published by the Senior High School Division of the Shizuoka Prefectural Board of Education. Editing credit goes to the awesome Chronicle Editorial Committee.

Searching for a Dream: Spotlight on Night School


Fujieda Higashi High School

NOTE: students’ names have been changed for confidentiality.

HITOMI IS 21 years old and works two jobs in addition to attending night school. She sleeps one or two hours a night, and all day on her days off. It’s no wonder she shows up to class exhausted.

In Shizuoka Prefecture, there are 24 teijisei, or part-time schools. Most are regular high schools during the day which also offer classes at night, hence their nickname, “night school” they cater to 3,624 students, and 14 ALTs work at them.

At Fujieda Higashi’s night school, I assist with the fourth-year students’ bi-weekly English drama class. Most of the 16 students in this class work full-time and live at home, handing over a portion of their income to their parents. I interviewed them during rehearsals for “The Wizard of Oz,” which they performed at a cultural festival in Shizuoka City on January 28th.

First off, I asked about their lifestyles. The students have a variety of jobs, from gutting fish in a processing factory to secretarial working an office. On average, they get up at six in the morning, work for eight hours and attend night school from 5:45 to 9:00 p.m. Only one student interviewed attends any of the three club activities available. The most popular extracurricular activities they noted were sleeping and “driving somewhere at night-time.”

Some students started night school directly after junior high school, others came after dropping out of senior high school, and the remainder came after having worked. They came back because they were unsatisfied with their lives and wanted to identify a “future dream.”

Night school provided a flexible alternative to “day school,” or regular high school. Students’ different schedules are accepted without fuss. They are not expected to study for hours every day. My JTE explained that teachers pass everyone whose attendance record is okay.

Of course, night school is not considered a perfect alternative to day school. It is virtually impossible for fourth-year students to hold even the most basic conversation in English. Although they have collectively memorized the “Wizard of Oz” script, they would not understand their lines without the Japanese printed underneath them.

Students say they find English difficult, but are envious of those who can speak it. Masaki, a 19-year old boy who works transporting luggage, explained that while it is easy for me to travel to foreign countries and be understood, he could not do so with his native tongue.

Night school should be commended for giving students a second chance to graduate from high school while working full-time. However, many students seem too burnt out to appreciate it. Hitomi, for instance, arrives worn out each evening and reads from the “Wizard of Oz” script monotonously.

Still, drama appeals to students in a way that typical lecture-style English classes do not. Students here are optimistic that their qualification in graduating will improve their lives. Unlike most of the students I teach, they are slowly searching for, rather than chasing, a dream.

07 May 2011

Hamaoka Nuclear Power Plant: the reality

About a month ago, I stated my intention to devote a post specifically to Hamaoka and today, when I read that the Japanese prime minister Naoto Kan has requested that the plant's operator shut down its reactors until further safety precautions have been taken, it occurred to me that now was the time.

The international mudslinging that's gone on in the last two months over nuclear power has fascinated me. I used to be one of that great majority of Irish people who knew very little about and yet were opposed to it in principle. Ireland prides itself on being a non-nuclear state. When I was in secondary school in 2002, we were given postcards protesting against the Sellafield nuclear power plant to sign. There was no space for a debate on nuclear energy, only 'here - sign as many of these as you can'. One card illustrated what the Eastern coastline could look like after a major disaster at Sellafield in neon "radiation" colours, green and pink. Another featured a close-up of a green (hence Irish?) eye with the words 'Tony. Look me in the eye and tell me I'm safe.' As students, we dutifully wrote our names and mailed cards off to the Department of Foreign Affairs and the British Prime Minister.

Since March 11th and the Fukushima crisis, I've become a nuclear expert. Of course, I won't claim to have any real scientific knowledge, but the recent improvement in my understanding of nuclear power generation can only be described as the transition from ignorance to expertise. This increased understanding has neither fostered by staunch anti-nuclear stance nor caused a radical turn-around in my beliefs. Nuclear issues are far more complex than I had imagined and I think both more knowledge and careful contemplation are required before I will know where I stand. That said, there are some things I'm now sure about, all of which lead me to congratulate Mr. Kan on the extremely wise request he made yesterday.

1. The maximum amount of safety precautions must be taken regarding nuclear power.

I doubt that anyone in Japan or indeed elsewhere would disagree with me on this. The question is how we define 'maximum' and predict the relevant safety threats. I assume Japanese nuclear plants on the Pacific coast all boast impressive seawalls, but how high are they? The wall at Fukushima Daiichi was not high enough.

How big is the error margin in the risk analysis that's done before deciding how extreme the safety precautions at a plant should be? If governments are willing to give planning permission for nuclear plants along active seismic fault lines, these error margins need to be reduced. The Japanese government has realised this in ordering power plant operators across the country to reassess and improve their safety features.

Hamaoka: lacks the maximum amount of safety precautions. The very fact that its operator has pledged to build a breakwater of 15m (behind the 10m that was previously all it cared to finance) in the next 2-3 years shows that it lacks a precaution the CHUBU electric power company clearly views as essential (or they wouldn't be financing it).
The location of the plant over/nearby the probable epicentre of the predicted Tokai earthquake means that unlike any other nuclear power plant in the world - a major disaster WILL occur there, it's just a case of when. Proper safety precautions will reduce the effects of that disaster.

2. Without aggressive public monitoring, private companies are inclined not to implement the maximum amount of safety precautions.

So now private power companies have got the authorities on their backs, and so they should. It's only as a result of outside monitoring that companies like TEPCO have been forced to adhere to reasonable safety standards in the past. In 2002, the company was discovered to have falsely reported in over 200 government inspections over a period of more than 20 years. In Japan, a particular problem is Tokyo bureaucrats going to bed with power company tycoons they're supposed to be regulating. This takes the form of retiring politicians accepting cosy senior positions at the companies. All reasonable expectation of unbiased monitoring goes out the window in these cases.

Thanks to domestic and international outcry over Fukushima, the government is suddenly putting effective pressure on power companies to do the right thing. The ministry of the economy, trade and industry has ordered companies to implement new safety measures, but when Kan announced his request for the CHUBU company to shutdown its nuclear reactors, he had to acknowledge that he had no authority to order them to do it. Perhaps he should.

Hamaoka: is a case in which the government has already failed in its monitoring responsibility. The Tokai earthquake was first predicted in 1969 by seismologist Kiyoo Mogi, months before planning permission was granted for the plant. Amazed that the government allowed the construction of a nuclear power plant above the expected focal region of an 8+ magnitude quake, Mogi has repeatedly called for its closure. This is spelt out in his paper 'Two grave issues concerning the expected Tokai Earthquake', a terrifying read.

3. While people do overreact to radiation fears, they also under react.

We all chucked benevolently at the panic buying of salt in China. For people in Tokyo, the panic buying of bottled water was a little more worrying...but perhaps the most serious inappropriate reactions to Fukushima have been from people returning to live within the government evacuation zone. It was as a result of this that entering the zone was eventually made illegal, a law now enforced by the JSDF (Japanese Self Defence Forces). It seems that after the initial panic and adrenaline rush caused by the crisis, people disregarded the real health risks.

Hamaoka: was the subject of protests in Shizuoka as far back as 2002 (www.stop-hamaoka.com/english). When they achieved nothing, interest in the issue waned despite the fact that the threat was increasing (for every year the Tokai doesn't occur, it becomes a fraction more likely to occur the following year). Since the beginning of the Fukushima crisis, public demonstration has resumed. Contrary to cultural norms, the Japanese have risen up express dissatisfaction with the way both power companies and the government are dealing with nuclear energy. This is THE appropriate reaction and it looks as though the government has finally taken it seriously.
Government action must happen now because the Fukushima crisis will blow over and people will settle back into their comfortable lives, no longer overtly aware of the dangers of the Hamaoka plant. This is natural because it's impossible to live life in a constant state of fear, but it means that unless something is done now, what happens at Hamaoka after the Tokai quake will probably be worse than Fukushima.

4. There is a point at which the risks that come with nuclear power are no longer worth the benefits it brings.

Since the 11th of March continuous efforts have been underway to get all of Fukushima Daiichi's reactors into to a state of cool shutdown. The discontinuation of energy production at the plant has resulted in blackouts across the north east and a reduction in train services. This was/is an inconvenience for millions of people (more than 12,000,000 live in Tokyo), but did TEPCO attempt to restart the nuclear processes in the Fukushima reactors? No, because that would have been crazy. The increased comfort of all those millions of people would not have been worth the safety risk posed by restarting the reactors without being able to monitor or control what was happening inside them.

Hamaoka's: operation is another such risk. With an 87% chance that the Tokai earthquake will strike in the next 30 years, it seems like sheer madness that the government would allow the CHUBU electric power company to operate Hamaoka with less than the maximum amount of safety precautions in place, and sheer madness that the company would announce their intention to restart the currently shutdown reactor number 3 while simultaneously announcing that the maximum amount of safety precautions are not currently in place.
CHUBU and the LDP (political opposition) might be worried about power shortages (i.e. not enough air conditioning) during the summer months but frankly I'm more concerned about the health of large numbers of people. 170,000 people have been evacuated from within a 20 km radius of Fukushima, while more than 300,000 live within the same distance of Hamaoka.

Maybe the Tokai earthquake will never happen and I sincerely hope that it doesn't. On the other hand, scientists and the Japanese government are convinced that it will, hence the Large-Scale Earthquake Countermeasures Act of 1978. They have predicted the destruction it will cause - 310 billion dollars of damage and 7,000-9,000 deaths. The whole point of countermeasures is reducing this destruction by reducing risks.

With this in mind, the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami and corresponding Fukushima nuclear crisis are likely to mark a watershed in disaster preparedness in Shizuoka Prefecture. People have been incited to demand that the government adequately monitors the otherwise irresponsible nuclear power plant operators implementation of the maximum amount of safety precautions. Japan is learning from experience as we speak.

03 May 2011

My first enkai (9 months in)

Before the school year changeover period in March, I was under the impression that I had attended several enkais while in Japan. I was incorrect. The small parties of about 10 teachers in restaurants near our school, which ended by 9 pm turned out not to be the extent of Japanese teachers' socialising.

My first real enkai was to be the school closing ceremony around the end of March. It was held in a hotel in Yaizu (shock, horror) on the coast, right beside the same Pacific ocean that had terrifyingly risen up to devastate north eastern Japan earlier in the month. I was a little anxious about attending the enkai, but figured it would be rude to pull out. How glad I was that I didn't...

Having boarded a bus from school, I arrived at a palatial hotel at the edge of sheer cliff. Inside there were chandeliers, big fluffy carpets and staff casting suspicious glances at me amidst my Japanese colleagues. Our party room was at a corner of the hotel, so two of its walls were mostly taken up by windows looking out over the sea and Yaizu cliffs. I choose a random number and sat in the corresponding seat, luckily next to an English teacher. I stared at what I thought was a menu, but which turned out to be the evening's schedule, (no wonder there was barely any Katakana on it).

When all the teachers and office staff were seated at our immaculately set round tables, it was announced that we would take a group photo...hence everyone had to get up and shuffle to the end of the room. Reluctant as I was to turn my back to the coastline, it was required in order to face the camera. Thankfully, the growing darkness outside meant that my tsunami early warning system (seeing a tsunami as it approached) was decreasing in probable effectiveness...thus the balance of harms dictated that I shouldn't make a scene. In the staff photo, which now resides atop my fridge, I stand out as the only person not wearing a suit. Unfortunately, though I'm not the only person wearing a colour other than black, we're a small company and I have a bright red cardigan on. I really wasn't on top of things that week.

Back in our seats, the night progressed with speeches from each departing colleague and a succession of about 15 courses, each more suspicious and thrilling than the one before. Was it animal, vegetable or mineral? Raw or cooked? Sweet or savory? Several times, I'd convinced myself that this MUST be the desert course and bitten into some kind of fish, expecting a sweet taste. But couldn't I have asked my English-speaking neighbour? Nope. As soon as the speeches ended and dinner was being served, the majority of diners jumped up and began circling the high-ranking staff members, clutching beer bottles. It dawned on me that I should have read up on enkai etiquette beforehand. It was slowly coming back to me as I sat there alone, trying to identify/eat my food.

After a while I decided that I had to at least try pouring drinks for people. I did it once or twice for people at my table but for long periods of time I was the only one at it. In typical Japanese fashion, I researched my mission by observing my peers. They seemed be choosing whom to pour for purposefully, probably going for those they knew or their department heads. I noticed that Kocho Sensei (the principal) and the Kyoto Senseis (vice principals) had a constant cloud of inferiors milling around their chairs, willing them to drink up so they could refill their glasses. After the ritual, the pourer would make small talk with the pouree, something which I was woefully incapable of. If only I'd studied Japanese harder over the last 9 months...

Eventually, I plucked up my courage and grabbed a spare beer bottle. With a stroke of luck I noticed that the friendly Kyoto Sensei, (one always smiles at me and the other always glares, I figure it's a premeditated good cop/bad cop routine they've been keeping up all year), was unattended. Approaching him, I employed my standard Japanese interaction technique, muttering 'sumimasen' to get his attention. I held up the beer and he proffered his glass. I poured with both hands as I had witnessed others do. Mission accomplished!

Almost. He started talking to me in Japanese, beaming more than usual with alcohol induced friendliness added to his ordinarily welcoming features. I nodded and smiled in return, but of course when he paused for me to reply I had to say 'wakaru nae', I don't understand. He continued more slowly with gestures and in fairness to him I was totally complicit in his overestimating my Japanese ability on those evaluation forms a few months back so he wasn't to know any better. Ultimately, I had no choice but to change my short reply to 'wakaramashita', I understand. Indeed, it did occur to me that with the enthusiasm with which he was repeating the same thing over and over, he could only be thanking me for recontracting/not evacuating after March 11th. Despite concluding this important social interaction successfully, I couldn't help but feel a little bad...intently mulling over whether to revoke my offer of recontracting as I was.

Towards the end of the night, teachers took their seats again for a range of closing rituals. At one point everyone stood and we sung what I later learned was the school song. It was catchy, but I couldn't sing it now. After that, one of the younger staff members was invited to the stage, where he stood in what looked like a dramatic martial arts or tai chi stance and roared (yes that's the appropriate verb), a series or incomprehensible signifiers to my absolute bafflement but seemingly not to the surprise of anyone else present. The audience responded with a sequence of rhythmic claps, which I attempted to join in with (impromptu style!), but during which I inevitably embarrassed myself by noisily clapping out of time..oops.

The mood in the room was super genki (hyper and tipsy would also be appropriate adjectives) as the final rite of the night commenced. The whole staff (60+) made a long tunnel with two lines of people facing one another and joining hands together overhead. The tunnel started at the sea-facing windows and ended at the door out. The teachers leaving passed through the tunnel sharing words of farewell and quite the few tears with its component teachers. Most of those near me were either pissing themselves laughing or sobbing...it was an utterly bizarre scene given that I'd come to know my colleagues as subdued, middle-aged professionals.

It was also freaking awesome!

I can only hope that European schools hold these kind of ritual bonding parties, but I doubt it. It also goes to show that after 9 months I still have a lot of Japanese culture to experience!

08 April 2011

Everything there is to talk about

Previously, on Ohayo an tSeapain, I emigrated to Japan. It was awesome, after some adjusting. Since then: I didn't recontract, I recontracted, March 11th earthquake, (previously planned) evacuation to Osaka, return to Shiz, I unrecontracted and now this...everything there is to talk about.

I thought about posting a blog entry after the disaster. It would have had the title 'Japan earthquake and tsunami March 11th'. It would have gotten a million hits, from people looking for legitimate, useful information, people like my family, wanting information because they knew someone in Japan. So there was no blog post. Instead I consumed media. I subsisted on a diet of NHK and BBC live news feed, YouTube videos captured by Japanese mobile phones, of tsunami waves churning infrastructure around, of the sea enveloping farmland up to 10km inland in Sendai, of the Japanese parliament as the earthquake struck. Actually, to be honest, I didn't look at most of that until later...what I focused on first was Fukushima Daiichi.

Ironically, although I felt the 3/11 tremors in Shizuoka, I didn't realise that such a large earthquake had occurred until almost 20 hours later. My Dad informed by phone from Ireland. Had I seen the news? No. What an incredible highlighting of one's vulnerability in a place where they don't speak the native language. Of course, I saw the initial TV broadcast at school but, not understanding the announcements or the text, I relied on translation. Unsurprisingly, the primary concern of the English teachers at that moment wasn't translating for me. When I finally grabbed one and asked what was going on I heard, 'There's been a small earthquake in Mie-Ken. There is no damage.' Satisfied, I went back to my work that afternoon. Later that day, I didn't bother to check online for information. After all, there'd been none available in English when I'd tried frantically Googling for it...because it was only a small earthquake...

Of course, I'm sure the teacher didn't intentionally mislead me. During the commotion, maybe NHK wasn't yet broadcasting the facts, maybe the teacher had heard incorrectly, or maybe it was me that misheard her. Whatever the reason I was amazed later that evening, to notice everyone in Fujieda train station crowded around the solitary TV above the turnstiles, staring. It was like some pseudo-realistic scene from a disaster movie. But still, it had only been a minor quake, hadn't it? The following morning, after the phone call from my Dad, I finally went online and realised the extent of it. I discovered that the map of Japan, still being unanimously broadcast by all TV channels, with the flashing red/orange/yellow along the coastline was a tsunami warning. You see, it's not just language but pure inexperience that cuts me off from news sources.

Two days on, 'out of dodge' in Osaka, the obsessive live news feed monitoring began. Going on a preplanned holiday, we met people on the train who were fleeing westward. They had IPhone4s with data...and checked the news constantly. Once in the Kansai region, our 'safe days' were numbered, or were they? In the end, we delayed returning for 3 days, booking a new hotel each day that we decided...no, not today, let's not go back today. Scarily, we had to move hotels each night because many were booked up, full of foreigners on the next flight out via Osaka airport. Should I also be leaving Japan?

It was hard to know, far away from and out of touch with Shiz. Certainly, the online debate I saw was polarized. The foreign media were blowing things out of proportion, freaking our friends and family out...or was the Japanese government and TEPCO with-holding information? There had been protests in Tokyo. Ultimately, we did a lot of research, and decided that while the nuclear situation wasn't stable, the scientific sources seemed to rule out the kind of mushroom-cloud shaped meltdown that constituted the West's 'worse than Chernobyl' worst fears. Shiz was safe, according to scientists. Worst case scenario and Shiz was still safe.

We headed back on the 24th. Teachers at school were amazed to see me. They thought I'd left the country. So that was OK. They asked if I'd been advised to leave...yes, but here I was. (Fukushima) nuclear fears (largely) allayed, my media tastes changed. I began researching the Tokai earthquake again. Again because, like I assume most Shiz JETs did, I looked it up a lot after our earthquake initiation at Kakegawa Orientation. First year JETs got to ride an 'earthquake van' back in August. Though no more dramatic than the average roller coaster, the lack of being strapped in, coupled with the fact that it was simulating an experience we were predicted to have suddenly, unexpectedly, made it infinitely more terrifying. It had inspired me to get an earthquake kit.

In fact, before leaving Osaka, one of the conditions of our leaving Osaka, was stocking up on all those things I'd meant to get for the kit but never gotten around to buying. The purchases seemed very urgent all of a sudden. Back in Fujieda, I placed the upgraded kit on my bike to bring it everywhere with me. Placed a torch and helmet beside my bed. Bought a Swiss army knife and kindling..so that I could make a fire to boil water on the top of a hill that I'd evacuate to as a tsunami precaution if the Tokai happened at night...you see I was a little freaked out. You might say that I was paranoid if what had happened hadn't happened, but a new frame of reference had been established. Each day as I cycled to school, the small saucepan hanging from my backpack clinking against my metal bike basket I thought, can I continue to live like this?

The Tokai research continued and I discovered that I hadn't had enough information, and that even the information the Prefecture has, its 'predictions' are likely to be revised, are currently be revised. The extent of the Tohoku tsunami was totally unprecedented. Seismologists said that further research needed to be done, before they could say how much stress on other fault lines (ie the Philippine/Eurasian plate fault line, location of Tokai quakes) had increased..but it had certainly not decreased. Troublesome. Worst of all was/is the location of the Hamaoka Nuclear Power plant in the south of Shizuoka. I'll post on this specifically soon, but suffice to say it's 50m from the coast (tsunami risk hello?) and the epicentre of the Tokai may well be directly underneath it. Meanwhile the BOE was bombarding me with what was supposed to be comforting information. While I doubt they said anything untrue, there was a sense of alterity of motive in the messages that was obvious a mile away. Please don't run away, they were saying. In truth, it was hard to know what or who to believe.

The biggest meanwhile has to go to the people in the Tohoku region. 3 weeks after the disaster, I was only beginning to imagine their suffering, though it had been going on less than 300 miles away. Of course, I'd donated money. I'd watched the body count rising, but these were faceless numbers initially. Maybe the most striking thing I read about the entire disaster was on NHK: 'The number of victims is expected to rise because officials in some coastal areas devastated by the tsunami still cannot calculate the exact number of missing people." Whole towns, extended families, groups of friends, places where people were born and lived their whole lives...I suppose you would call them 'communities'...whole communities had been washed away. Was that even sad? Some of the dead aren't being mourned because everyone who knew them is also dead. They haven't been reported as missing because no one misses them. Now that's hard to comprehend.

I've heard about tragedies before. The Holocaust. The Rwandan genocide. The Omagh bombing. I'd felt sad about all of them, but never before had I had to face the possibility of the same thing happening to me, of exactly the same thing being predicted to happen to me. Here in Shizuoka, the predicted Tokai earthquake is 8+ magnitude. It will also be a mega-thrust quake, caused by another plate (the Philippine plate) subducting under the Eurasian plate on which Japan sits...just like the Tohoku quake. Imagining the devastation such a quake would cause is one thing, but watching and reading news reports of it is another entirely. We can watch video footage of the tsunami hitting and read the names of the people who have died.

With all of this in mind, I was going about my daily life in a bubble of heightened and simultaneously dulled reality. At school, I'd periodically check NHK and BBC websites for further news. At the staff farewell party, which was held in a coastal hotel in Yaizu, I found myself nervously gazing out at the sea. Whenever I went out without my emergency bag, I'd be constantly assessing escape plans. What will I do if the Tokai happens while I'm here? How will I cover my head? How will I get to higher ground? Each time I saw a place in Fujieda for the first time since the quake I couldn't help but imagine it flooding, a huge wall of water engulfing the supermarket, my school, the station. All the while, a truly horrifying realisation was slowly dawning on me. I wasn't going to be able to stay in Japan.

Initially I thought, I'm just in shock. The shock will wear off and I'll be able to forget about the Tokai earthquake again and live normally. I have and I am now, for the most part. The problem for me was how to differentiate paranoia from reasonable survival concerns. I spent hours pouring over Tokai data and evacuation plans and I still believe that while obviously, people living in Shizuoka can't live in a constant state of terror, if they did so their terror wouldn't be irrational. There's nothing irrational about wanting to avoid involvement in a large scale natural disaster. It's merely basic survival instinct.

But what about the Shizuokans? This is a thorny ethical issue. Whatever way you look at it, when I told my coworkers that I'd decided not to recontract because of the Tokai earthquake, the subtext was, I'm going to leave because I don't think it's safe..eh, but good luck to you, I'm sure you'll be grand. Beyond that, putting yourself first is never really appreciated in Japan. I suppose the bottom line is that despite this, I find it acceptable. I find it necessary where personal safety is concerned. We can extrapolate then that having lived here for 8 months, I am still not turning Japanese.

But other foreigners are staying? Yes. Most of my JET friends are staying. Some of them..most of them, are in love with Japan. They speak Japanese, they love Japanese culture. They had a burning desire to come and live here and they adore it. I guess you could say they're part of communities here. It's different for me though. Like the awkward end of a relationship, I've had to let Japan know that while I love it, I'm not in love with it. I came here on a whim. I haven't really learnt any Japanese. I'm not integrated into my community. I'm not very friendly with my coworkers. That's not to say that I haven't had the experience of a lifetime or that I don't have amazing friends here, but if I were to make a list of 'things I couldn't live without' or 'things for which I would live in the predicted focal region of an 8+ magnitude earthquake', Japan wouldn't make it.

I'm so happy here, but I believe in my ability to be happy elsewhere too. So I'm leaving, not now, not all of a sudden, but in 3 months time when my contract ends. It's a decision that has alienated me from my coworkers and surprised my friends. At last, I think I've told everyone. It was a lot to think about, and it's a lot to talk about.

02 February 2011

Marathon Day

At my old secondary school, if you'd asked all the students to run a 7-10 km marathon you would have gotten a lot of absenteeism, some sit-in protesters, several middle fingers and maybe 5 volunteers. In Japan, the same request prompted every student in 1st and 2nd year to run 7-10 km.

The marathon meant that I got to leave my desk for the morning, not that I could really afford to with marking stacking up but still. First off, the teachers watched the students as they lined up in their utterly straight lines on the dirt pitch, in order of HR number of course. Kocho Sensei did what Kocho Sensei does and made what I can only assume was a speech that was both charming and motivational. As usual, he held up several props, this time fans with Kanji written on both sides of them. During this, I milled around on the raised area behind him along with the other teachers, most of whom were wearing tracksuits rather than work clothes. Why did nobody tell me that we were supposed to wear tracksuits?

After the speeches, the students began their warm-up, lead by a particularly stern PE teacher barking instructions into a megaphone. A few teachers even joined in, God bless them. Only one teacher volunteered to run with the students, which goes to show that Japanese people don't enjoy marathons any more than Irish people, and that the school admin are totally hypocritical. Still, I was very glad teachers weren't compelled to run. Could you imagine? I could..

Last year my predecessor ran, fair play to her. Unfortunately, this led to a bunch of awkward conversations, when various people guessed that I might be running. No, I'm 100% unfit. Which sport do I like? Can I say none...ok surfing then. Do high school students in Ireland run marathons? See above.

I couldn't help fondly reminiscing about the last time I tried to run any significant distance. I was 12 years old and it was Sports Day in my primary school. 6th class had to run maybe 200m. My best friend and I refused on principle to participate, but we were forced to. We expressed our discontent by ambling slowly around the course behind our classmates who were actually attempting to run. Fools, we thought, in our rebellious, almost-adolescent state. The spectators had to wait for us to finish before the next race could take place, and we took pleasure in their impatience as we strolled along the home stretch, long after everyone else had finished.

Actually, with 10m to go I sprinted to the line so I didn't come in last. I was a bad friend.

The 1- and 2- nensei boys took off first. They had to run 10 km. I watched from the starting point outside the school as they pushed and shoved each other at the front. Then Kocho-Sensei, standing on an upturned crate, shot the starter gun. No kidding, he actually shot a gun into the air like at the Olympics or something..those nearby covered their ears. The boys accelerated wildly.

5 minutes later, the girls lined up, poised for their 7 km run. They were a lot calmer and took off at a leisurely pace when the gun was fired. After that, it was a case of waiting around. Of course, I could have gone inside and gotten some work done for the 40 mins plus they'd be running for, buy my supervisor had randomly suggested that I help the school nurse. I can never tell whether his suggestions are spur of the moment whims or well thought out, okayed with the Vice Principle kind of things, so I decided to go along with this one.

The nurse is a lovely woman who speaks very little English and greatly over-estimates my Japanese competency. She tried to speak to me a number of times, each in vain. I ended up chatting to a group of 3-nensei students. 3rd years don't have to run the marathon because they're focusing on exams. Despite this, these particular students hung around all morning helping out. It was a good chance to speak to them because I only ever taught 6 3-nenseis and our classes are finished for the year. Like most students at my school, they were totally cringing at having to speak English but surprisingly good at it.

Together we personed (see previous posts for my de-patriachising of English), the injury station. It was a good thing that our biggest challenges were a girl who was tired and a guy whose pre-injured knee was sore (should he even have been running the marathon? I think not...) because I certainly had no idea what I was doing. When the girl arrived, drenched in sweat and collapsed onto the soft floor tiles we'd laid on the concrete, I was pretty concerned about her. She was panting and the 3-nensei students covered her with a blanket. I suppose the problem was to complicated to explain in their second language because they told me she was tired. Then again, she sprang up and left after a few minutes.

When a problem I could have helped with finally came our way I was useless. A student with a bloody ankle in need of cleaning, showed up nonchalantly. I knew where the disinfectant and wipes were, but all I could do was wince grossed-outedly at his wound and murmur 'itai'. The san-nenseis saw to him as I sucked in air through my teeth...eww...

On reaching the finishing line, each student was given a numbered card showing their placing. Afterwards, there was a closing ceremony in the gym at which the first 30 boys and 20 girls received medals and certs. I can only assume that the ratio of boys to girls in the school is 3:2. Don't get me started on the implication that the school comparatively under values girls sporting achievements if this isn't the case...I'm not even going to check.

As usual, we bowed and clapped and were lectured at by various people. I think it went on for about half an hour, ridiculously. I saw that the students had all changed from their PE clothes back into their uniforms for the sake of appearances. It wasn't for classes anyway, because the rest of the day's classes were cancelled. Hurray for the students getting the break they deserved for once!

The whole day served to remind me of Japan's cultural unfamiliarity. Following orders and respect for physical fitness are givens. I have to admit though, that it makes for a healthy nation. In my school, I'd estimate that less than 1% of students are overweight. Compare that to Ireland where around 20% or children are overweight or obese as of 2010. There's a logic to the disparity.

It also makes for some entertaining reactions...

'What did you do in PE in high school?'

'Well...I didn't actually even do PE in high school...'