Archive for the ‘学校 (public school)’ Category

Much to My Chagrin

2012年 9月 6日

Every March, when the school year comes to a close, it is common to receive trophies, letters, or other presentations from the students. Sometimes spontaneous movement of the children’s hearts prompts it. Other times, teachers assign it to get pupils to unwittingly practice their language arts skills. Regardless of origin they are always enjoyable to read: first, because they are moving; and second, because they are cute.

Definitely, children say the darndest things and one sadness is that I can’t afford to store all the cards, letters, and presents for posterity: partly for fire safety reasons.

Last Spring, at one of my favorite schools, each second grade class had a representative write a letter for everyone. Instructions from the teacher indicated that group opinion – rather than personal – should be expressed. I included one letter here from a boy who couldn’t resist slipping in a sentence about his regrettable memory from my class. He placed it in the middle and the teacher, busy wrapping up the school year, didn’t catch it; but we had some laughs when I showed it to her.


Dear Erik, thank you for always teaching us so much more than English, like pronunciation and many other things. Your slightly ‘unconventional’ games are also very fun. “Recently when we played the board game, much to my chagrin, I came in fourth.” When you read picture books to us we really enjoy it. Everyone feels that when we play games or you read to us, those are the most enjoyable times. From Second grade, class 1

Back to School

2012年 9月 5日

School has started up again, but I won’t teach any classes until Friday. This can be the most boring time of the year when it seems that work has started but it really hasn’t. I am feeling a little anxiety about Friday because it will be open house. Nobody is ever certain who might show up to watch on those days and the students are probably still in summer vacation mindset.

Adding to the stress this year is the lack of preparation meetings. Real teachers were given extra time off this summer, so while I was sitting in empty school offices to not burn my remaining holidays, the teachers were off enjoying themselves and we couldn’t meet up to discuss how to approach the second term.

With all that time away from work, you would think there were lots of stories to tell; but, almost without exception, teachers here feel an aversion to ever admitting they were not busy or – worse yet – they enjoyed themselves. Asking about the holidays always nets some answer filled with vaguaries and mumbles which generally ends in whining about some professional development meeting they had one day.

Along with the new term, I will be turning a new leaf and trying to post more regularly again. Lots has been going on, including some travel, some learning, and some personal development.

Two Straight Years of Increase

2012年 2月 17日

A title like this could be a sign for hope, if only the increase in question were something positive. Arriving at school this morning I found a memo addressed to all the Principals in Tsu regarding traffic accidents for Board of Education employees. The year ending March 31st, 2010 had the fewest reported accidents over a four year period at 62 incidents. Last year shot up to 95 incidents making it a record year, but a short-lived record. The purpose of the memo was to highlight the fact that figures through the first ten months of this year show 104 incidents, on pace for more than 120.

Following their typical pattern, the memo explains the trouble which will be caused by this trend and makes an appeal to change the problem. As usual their worry is not what people with common sense would focus on and there is no constructive evaluation of why the problem is occurring nor how to affect the desired improvement, merely a demand that the situation improve. Rather than concern about safety, increased costs to the school system, insurance problems, etc. the concern expressed in the memo is that students and guardians will have trouble trusting the Board of Education.

Since the change is so extreme – doubling in two years – I am very curious about the cause, and think it would be instructive in the process of reducing accidents. Has there been an increase in off-site business activities which increased the number of kilometers traveled? Has something increased the number of solo trips or trips using individuals’ vehicles? Has there been a change in time pressure applied by Principals?

While this problem is not pleasant, it actually does not come as a surprise since I often see dangerous activities and try to address them at the schools. In one case, I was almost struck by a Principal leaving a parking space without looking. I really wanted to discuss this incident; however, the Principal never mentioned it at all and I was afraid to bring it up myself since I felt his action was unacceptable. Generally, my observation is that our Board of Education is amply staffed with people who feel they are exemplary; hence there is little chance for honest discussion about improvement.

Being Found

2011年 10月 24日

Living an hour away from work is terribly inconvenient, so I moved back to Tsu; but, sometimes it has it’s advantages. Being a teacher to two thousand students can often make one feel like a rock star. When I go out shopping or dining, it is common to be spotted by someone who knows me. Generally I am OK with being spotted and even greeted for a short conversation; however, when things get closer to home privacy becomes an issue.

We chose a home that is two minutes from one of my schools which guarantees that I will be discovered by my students. Even so, my hope was to delay that discovery as long as possible. Having kids showing up at strange times wanting attention could get tiring. Although I could walk to this school, I go as far as to ride my bike so when the students see me, they might think I was riding from the station as I did before.

My first time being seen was putting out the plastic recycle a couple weeks ago. For some reason I have to walk half a kilometer to put out recyclable trash. Two students walking to school were heading straight toward me, and their eyes went wide as saucers when they realized who I was. I greeted them politely – as I would if we met in the hall at school – and continued on. I returned to the house on a different street, hoping the ‘out of sight, out of mind’ saying carries some truth. One of them is very clever and I guess some wheels have been turning in her mind.

Meeting my wife at the nearest grocery store also resulted in my being identified, but even when I was living in Ise, I would sometimes poke in their after work, so I don’t think this outed me.

Behind our house is a narrow rice field. On the other side of the rice field is the back of a “maisonette”, which I would translate as townhome. Basically there are four little back yards visible from where we park and dry our laundry. One family has three cute and generally well-behaved children who help hang out their laundry. Several times I have observed them working away and thought what a desirable family they have. Well, Saturday they became my official third sighting.

I was hanging out our laundry and suddenly I heard my name in an exclamatory tone. The oldest daughter is one of my third graders and the son is a first grader. He was the one who spotted me. Sunday morning we could hear all sorts of excited chatter coming in our kitchen window. Even though I hadn’t been outside, the boy kept running to the back yard, pointing across the rice field and announcing my presence. I will teach his class on Wednesday this week and his sister on Friday. I guess at least two hundred of my students will be aware of my location by the end of the week.

New Coins?

2011年 10月 21日

Yesterday I assisted a perplexed teacher. In Japan teachers often collect money (集金) from their students. Funds for paper and pencils, special science or cooking projects, field trip fees, school lunches, etc. are paid in cash on specific days. Additional funds are collected in minute payments for things like lost name tags, buttons, and such. Teachers must calculate how many students are involved and count up (or chase down) the funds. Our second grade homeroom teacher gathered 500 yen from each student.

We have 500 yen coins – the heaviest coins in circulation – so the teacher came in like a Nottingham tax collector with a jangling sack of loot. Of course the teachers always look a little distressed when it is time to count up the funds, but this time her expression betrayed a deeper concern. She thinks of me as the solver of all troubles and seeker of knowledge, so after digging two coins from the midst of the booty, she turned to me with questions.

My first reaction was that she was being swindled by those clever 7 year olds, but I investigated further. The standard 500 yen coins are a brassy color and have writing embossed on the edge. These coins have a silver core and brassy outer ring like the Canadian two-neys. Also they have a lot of English writing on them which was the source of my initial consternation. Googling the English text gave a link to a Japanese Mint webpage and a little growth in confidence.


In 1947 Japan passed the Local Autonomy Law (地方自治法) which decentralized power, putting more of it in the hands of prefectures and other divisions. Apparently the law has been enforced since 1948 and a series of coins is being minted to commemorate 60 years of enforcement. Doing the math you’ll realize that the first coins became available in 2008 (three years ago). Over the next several years they should release 47 coins: one for each prefecture. The coins I saw were for Shimane and Kyoto.

Neither I nor the teacher (nor anyone else we have asked) had seen these coins before yesterday, so this is a bit of a mystery for us. If the coins were in circulation for three years I would expect that – given the amount of change that teachers handle – we would have seen at least one before now. Two students transferred from Tokyo recently which led my colleague to hypothesize that these are in common use in the capital and haven’t spread to the countryside yet. One worry is that the coins were taken from dad’s coin collection or something: I hope that isn’t the case.

Also, the website indicates 1000 yen coins as well. We have no other 1000 yen coins in circulation, so I don’t expect these to turn up in pocket change. One side of these coins is brightly colored, making them not useful for general circulation. I guess they are purely for collector types.

International Japan

2011年 10月 18日

Many people have an image of Japan as being very genetically uniform. Very few people not of Japanese descent ever become citizens of Japan; however, that is not to say there are no foreigners living in Japan. My prefecture actually has a high number of resident aliens. Many workers come here to support factories and also the fishing industry; both of which are substantial here.

Today our city newsletter on human rights circulated to my desk. One chart shows a breakdown of mother tongues of foreign students in our elementary and junior high schools.

  • 53% Portuguese
  • 15% Spanish
  • 14% Tagalog
  • 6% Chinese
  • 2% Pashto
  • 2% Visayan
  • 8% Other

 Languages falling in the ‘other’ category include:

  • Indonesian
  • Mongolian
  • English
  • Malaysian
  • French
  • Vietnamese
  • Korean
  • Urdu
  • Arabic

There are more than 300 students speaking each of these 15 languages as their mother tongue. Our city provides staff at these schools to support these children and their families. At the school facilities students are given extra instruction in Japanese, a bit of counseling and international exchange activities. Most of the students, having young flexible minds, come up to speed within a year or two and the amount of support required declines rapidly. Translation of communications between schools and families; however, becomes an ongoing concern. Parents are much less likely to achieve language proficiency for various reasons, but need to be informed of many logistical issues in order to work smoothly with the schools.

Note that more than half of our foreign students are speakers of Portuguese. Japan has a long history with Brazil and many Japanese people have emigrated to Brazil over a long period. In many cases it is very easy for Brazilians to gain residency because they have Japanese grandparents (or other ancestors). At our international exchange events there is no shortage of South American influence.

So, while Japan does not have the mixed background of America, there are many countries represented here.

Run for the Hills

2011年 10月 6日

March 11th brought disaster upon Japan. Now, in response, we are having a lot of disaster drills. Living on a large bay, there is some possibility of tsunami here; however, even the most conservative models show that we can’t get a terribly large one here. Regardless of that, we are running around preparing for “the big one”.

Today we will have a tsunami drill for the case where our three story concrete building is not substantial enough. We will evacuate the building, gather on the grounds, and then head for the next building. Not sure if this is the best plan considering that some of the children who perished in the disaster had evacuated to their school grounds and were waiting there when the tsunami came.

Anyhow, the drill will start in 10 minutes. We have been planning this for weeks; which begs the question: is it really a preparedness drill if we all have a schedule?

Update – The time between the earthquake warning alarm and getting all the children into the adjacent building was over 20 minutes. If the earthquake is a long way away, maybe this is acceptable, but this idea of moving us to a different building seems like a recipe for disaster.

On the positive side, they made it very clear that the most important thing was to protect yourself. They warned about the possibility of broken glass, light fixtures falling, damaged buildings.

However, we moved to the other building and took time to remove our shoes and put them neatly in shoe lockers. This delayed our entry significantly and left the children stocking footed or barefooted. On normal days, if children take off their shoes the teachers warn them it is very dangerous (could be a loose thumbtack or something on the floor); but, after an earthquake we aren’t worried?

Now to figure out how to address my concerns properly with the chain of authority (in which I am the last link).

Silly Boys

2011年 10月 4日

My Tuesday school is a special place. Everyday there are special things happening here. Sometimes when I say special, I mean the difficult and frustrating variety; however, even in those cases amusing things float to the surface.

Just after fourth period began, one of the administrators stood up in the office and looked across the playground exclaiming, “What’s that?” They asked, “Is there a student out there?”

A small child was crouched down in the grass by the sandpile brought in to level the playing field for sports day. We identified the student and she hollered out at him to no avail. As she headed out for a direct interaction, we observed the activity from inside.

He seemed like a kitten prowling around, crouching, pouncing and suddenly – as if to sell this image further – a second playmate came flying in from a distance, nearly running headlong into his friend. The two boys continued scampering around after a grasshopper, including leaping vainly up a wall far higher than their heads. Eventually their awareness that they were being approached came to them and they ran off behind the storage shed.

Once they were corralled, scolded and back in class, I aksed what they were doing. My co-worker uses a very hard to follow dialectical pattern of speaking, but I think I caught the message.

Apparently during third period they were learning about how people used to catch grasshoppers and eat them for their nutritional value, so they set about catching one… Not sure if they planned to eat it or not…

Just an Accident

2011年 9月 20日

Previously I posted about the injury and death of a worker at one of my schools, and the ensuing investigation. Over the weekend I heard from connected sources that they were considering this an accidental death; however, this morning I was informed that an officer would come during my lunch break to fingerprint me and another worker.

Ostensibly the fingerprinting is just for exclusionary purposes. So the question begged by this procedure is: were my sources mistaken and there is still an active investigation, or were they misled?

Japan often brags on its high conviction rate for murder investigations. As recently as a couple decades ago they were claiming 100 percent success, with new investigative techniques one would assume it has not declined. Of course, one source of convictions are when organized crime is involved, they will sacrifice a young member to the police. Police are satisfied because they have a confession; senior members of the crime organization are satisfied because they were protected; and the junior member is satisfied because – after serving his time – he is taken care of and earns position. A concern for our current case is that, in Japan, the need to put the populace at ease is considered very important. Are the police just saying it was an accident to ease the nerves of this community?

We are finding out bit by bit about critical information that wasn’t passed on during the recent nuclear crisis; and information about residual materials is still kept pretty quiet. Today’s news showed that amidst concerns that 30 million people may have needed evacuation from the disaster area, the power companies plan was to abandon the site as it was. Clearly, letting us believe an assailant is not on the loose is something many would do quickly to keep us appeased. Hopefully, it was just an accidental death and today was merely necessary as the conclusion of procedure – also an important activity in Japan.

Attempted Murder

2011年 9月 7日

Yesterday started with unpleasantness about which I would rather not post, but my objective is to primarily blog about experiences in Japan; particularly, things out of the ordinary so here we are.

Normally it is hard to enter the narrow road between the junior high and elementary schools. Concrete electric poles create obstacles in the roadway and many people treat it as a drag strip regardless that there are faster and safer roads available to them. Yet yesterday it was worse than normal because a couple vans were stopping in a choke point causing the hesitant drivers in oncoming traffic to bottle up. As I got closer, I glimpsed a couple police officers on the side of the road and I got concerned.

My worry was that there was another bicycle-automobile accident. Nobody has died yet, but the disregard for safety in that neighborhood has precipitated some injury incidents. Already in this dejected state, the real situation began to unfold. More police officers were appearing and redirecting traffic out of the area. I was passed in as a school staff member, but when I arrived at the school gate a large police vehicle pulled just inside and blocked the way. I was directed to park at the junior high and proceed around the school building to the gym.

By the time I was heading around the building, it was completely blocked off with yellow tape and about 100 officers (many of whom appeared to be temporarily deputized volunteers) were gathering for a meeting. Many odd-looking pieces of equipment were being unloaded and I thought it was looking like a bomb scare or poison gas scare. No information was forthcoming and I was concerned about my safety.

Generally Japan is very safety oriented, but several times we have had issue with the foreign teachers’ condition being forgotten or neglected. Regardless of the situation, I think each of us should be considering our person safety and not surrendering that responsibility too easily. I informed the vice-principal that I would wait in my car (upwind) if it was all the same.

When I tired of waiting, I interrogated a police officer near my location carefully. At first he was following policy of not giving information, but when I clarified my need to evaluate my safety he opened up a little more. There was no bomb or poison threat and no immediate concern about safety, an investigation was underway. As we finished, a junior high staff member invited me into their offices to wait.

Feedback came that they were closing the school and after a series of phone calls I was cleared to do paperwork at the junior high. A new foreign teacher was on his first day there, so the bright point of my day was a chance to meet him.

Our school hires three retirees to patrol the school grounds after hours. Their job is to report anything suspicious. Apparently, in the evening a 71 year old patrol was checking the school and was assaulted. He was struck in the head and our principal discovered him unconscious in the morning. What motivated the attack is not yet certain; however, there is no apparent harm to the school property and there is no sign of robbery. Police were approaching it as an attempted murder investigation as of yesterday afternoon.

Describing how and why it is so disturbing to me is not an easy task, but I found myself ill at ease for hours yesterday. The junior high teachers walked all of their students home after school: a weekly practice at elementary schools, but rather unusual for junior high. Since there was no information about the attacker, people are on alert. Today there are apparently still a number of police in the neighborhood.

Praying for the recovery of the victim and clarification of the assailant and motivation.

Update: Just received word that the victim passed away at seven this morning.

Update: Sept 20 – heard over the weekend that they are labeling this an accident, but this morning I was fingerprinted for exclusionary purposes.