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!