To: newsletter
From: "Peter M. Rivard"

Subject: Emergencies, joys, and gruesome information

Hi, all,

       It's getting cooler here, and some of the joys of fall have already come and gone, including the elementary school sweet potato harvest. So far, I've been lucky enough to always be at the other school when one of mine was doing something agricultural--Manyo plants, cares for, and harvests red rice, and Go-chu watermelon--so my elementary school deliberately scheduled the sweet potato harvest for my day, just so I wouldn't keep missing out. Of course, digging in the dirt with first through fourth graders is enough fun to be worth getting a little dirty--and I got a couple of free sweet potatos out of the deal. Unfortunately, I had to miss the culmination of this effort, the school's Sweet Potato Festival (modeled after Shinto festivals), since I had to teach at Manyo that day. My lesson at the elementary school, and at my thrice-a-year one earlier in the week, had repeated last year's Halloween activities--almost guaranteed to be a hit. Make masks, do trick or treat, give out candy--can't miss. It was a lot of fun, and the sweet potatos weren't bad. I love those little kids.
       What else has been going on? Emergencies--one badly planned fake emergency and a real one that ran smoothly, at least on the school's part. First, about two weeks ago, Manyo had an earthquake drill. As seems to be the general style of drills here, the students froze when they heard the alarm to wait for instructions, which in this case were to go to the gym. The general idea that we should train students to immediately go to a safe, designated place on hearing an alarm seems entirely absent here, and when I explained how fire alarm and natural disaster drills work in the States, the teachers were filled with wonder that students were capable of such quick action without clear instruction every time (as if remembering "this class goes down that stairway and out that door and waits in that corner of the ball field" were especially difficult), so astounded, in fact, that it never occurred to them that such a system could also work here. Also, incomprehensibly to me, the teachers seemed to count the students BEFORE leading them out--while sitting in the burning or about-to-collapse building. The end result is that it took almost five minutes to evacuate a small school with abundant wide stairways and many exits. I hope it's earthquake proof.
       My second emergency came today. While I was teaching, I suddenly saw a commotion on the other side of the room; I rushed over and saw the regular teacher attending to a male student who was lying on the floor having convulsions. She quickly ordered two kids to the office to call an ambulance and bring up the school nurse. His convulsions lasted we think about a minute and a half to two minutes, and as they were winding down a thick mucous tinged with blood began to run out of his mouth (at first, it looked more like it had come from his ear, and I was never able to be sure it came from his mouth, but I think it was from the mouth). No one saw clearly enough to tell whether he fell and began to have convulsions after hitting his head, or if he fell and hit his head because he'd begun having convulsions. Soon, the nurse was attending to him and moving him into a more stable position; his convulsions and the need to keep him from thrashing his head into the bolted-down foot of the desk made it impossible to keep him from moving entirely, but I observed that the teacher had tried as much as possible to keep from reorienting his head and neck while protecting him from the desk. After about five minutes, he regained consciousness, although he wasn't able to follow instructions for a few more minutes, and of course he was encouraged not to sit up. Anyway, it took about ten minutes for the ambulance to get there--which is pretty good since the school sits in a remote village at least twenty minutes from anywhere else. I was amazed that the ambulance men carried no equipment except for a heart monitor that was never used (they didn't even take a radio into the building with them), and that they stopped to carefully take of their shoes before stepping into the building. Because he was on the third floor, they left the stretcher by the ambulance and brought up a padded blanket with handles to carry him down. Once upstairs, they even engaged in small talk--"Is he a teacher?" (obviously remembering the "One of these teachers is not just like the others" lesson from Sesame Street) and "What does he teach?" while I was clearing a few students out of the way. The casualness of the operation and the equipment surprised me; when my time comes, please call an American ambulance--it's a longer trip, but they drive a lot faster and they operate with some sense of urgency. Then again, because I'm not a medical professional, a kid who's hit his head and gone into convulsions (or vice versa) and then leaked some sort of bloody fluid perhaps frightens me much more than it does an experienced hand. (Added the next day: the boy is OK; it turns out he's an epileptic subject to grand mal seizures, but no one at the school was aware of that.)
       Yesterday, after I realized at one point that I was clinging to a 75° slope of loose gravel and poorly attached tufts of grass 150' over a rocky beach, I became quite happy not to have any sort of emergency. I was in such a place because I had been exactly there the week before, and I had realized at that time how idiotic it was to be there. I'd been hiking a long stretch of deserted but filthily littered shore (between two nuclear power plants, oddly enough), and at one point the trail was blocked by ropes and "entry forbidden" signs, and a much newer trail climbed up a rough staircase another 100 or so feet higher. After it descended back to the original level, 150 or so feet above the beach, it met the other end of the original, now closed path, and on the way back I decided to try the old path. I found that it ended where a landslide had torn it away, leaving a steep wash all the way down to the beach. I saw that if I climbed about thirty feet higher, I'd reach a ridge along which I could bushwack to the other side of the gap in the trail. I made it about twenty feet, spreading my weight evenly and gently on as many clumps of grass in the loose wet soil as I could, before it got too steep for even my stupidity. The hill was steep enough at this point that, standing up and leaning inward to keep my center of gravity forward, my chest and entire front were in contact with the hill (I think even my belly button was scrounging for a grip). I made my way down, walked backward out of the slide area, and climbed to the ridge in the zone of an older slide, in which trees had grown. Scrambling up from tree to tree in the loose dirt, I crashed through many low branches, but I made the top in a few minutes, crossed the ridge, and descended to the trail through a gulley filled with ferns. On the trail, I realized I'd lost my sunglasses; I'd folded them and slipped one temple inside the collar of my shirt, so they hung in the middle of my chest. I realized it was too late to go back; by the time I got back to where I'd probably lost the glasses, it would be too dark to find them, and then I would have to walk all the way back in the dark, too. I resigned myself to finding a new pair of sunglasses. Over the week that followed, though, I realized I'd either have to spend a lot of money to get similar glasses here, spend less but wait a long time to have them shipped from America, or settle for much cheaper ones--and I really liked those glasses. So it was that on Sunday I found myself retracing my steps, clinging to the tufts of grass, then scrambling up the scree. I figured that I must have lost them either where my chest was pressed against the steep grassy slope or where I'd torn through low branches just afterward. To my surprise, I actually found the sunglasses without much trouble, only ten or fifteen minutes into my search (though it had taken an hour of driving and an hour of hiking to reach the area).
       Although there are a few gorgeous views of the sea crashing around the cliffs and spires of rock just offshore, I wouldn't recommend this hike. First of all, much of the trail runs along the edge of the power plant grounds, so one side of the trail is an eight foot fence topped with barbed wire--the area is restricted, but it seems to be more of a nature preserve set up as a security buffer zone, so in the few places where there is more than just a cliff face on the other side of the fence, it's dark forest. Second, down on the beach, it is filthier than you can imagine--it's like hiking on a rocky landfill. Much of the trash is lost tackle from the fishing trawlers offshore, but most of it is trash thrown overboard from boats. The Japanese blame the Russians, of course, but almost everything with lettering is labeled in Japanese, and tossing trash overboard is in perfect keeping with the Japanese regard for nature. A lot of it, too, comes from the fishermen who come here to relax with their hobby, and naturally leave their food wrappers, beer cans, broken tackle, and other refuse along the trail (the higher trail, the one along the fence, doesn't get any fisherman traffic--or much traffic at all--and so is pretty decent, though there is enough trash to be startling to an American).
       Oddly enough, the favorite spot to fish, and thus to litter, seems to be the breakwater of 10' concrete jax sheltering the cooling water intake/outlet of one of the nuclear powerplants. Apparently, either the fish or what they eat favor the warm water coming out of the nuke. Of course, I understand how the plants work and that the cooling water is not at all radioactive (this isn't the water that cools the reactor, which is kept contained at the plant, but the water that cools the reactor water, with which it never comes in contact, through heat exchangers); I don't doubt that it's quite safe, unless there's some deadly algae that also likes warm sea water. However, just the thought of that water coming out of a nuclear power plant would keep me from eating those fish. It's like the drinking fountains on the toilets--I know full well that the water goes through the fountain before it goes into the toilet, and that it's fresh from the pipe and just as clean as from a regular drinking fountain, but just the thought of water associated with a toilet is too much for me (to be honest, the fountain is actually to rinse your hands after you flush, not for drinking).
       Lately, I've been keeping busy reading Yukio Mishima, Japan's most famous author, who is sort of a cross between Hemingway and David Koresh. In the west, he's more famous for his death than for his work, and perhaps rightly so. He believed strongly in purity; a pure act was one of selfless loyalty to the emperor and as such was the foundation of Japanese essence. His pure act, the shining beauty he had yearned for most of his life, was to take a military official hostage, deliver a rightist harangue to a crowd of bewildered soldiers, and commit seppuku. Seppuku, in the moderate form Mishima chose, involved inserting a dagger into the lower left part of his abdomen, slicing to the right side, and then turning up slightly (this last turn creates a flap rather than a slit so that the innards may pour out more easily); traditionally, after the samurai has demonstrated his resolve and will in this slice, his second, standing behind him, slices almost all the way through his neck, ending his pain immediately--he leaves a thin strip of skin and flesh at the throat to keep the head from literally flying off and to prevent the ten or fifteen foot fountain of blood from from the jugular (have you seen Kurosawa's Ran? I'm told that's pretty accurate in protraying what happens when you cut all the way through). Inevitably, Mishima's second had no experience; it took him several whacks, one of which somehow shattered the author's jawbone, finally sending his head across the room and his blood erupting most unaesthetically. In the hardcore version ("jumonji giri," meaning a slice in the shape of the character for "ten," a cross), after the horizontal slice, the samurai pulls the knife out, plunges it in again under the center of the first cut, and then slices upwards to make a cross; with the abdomen cut into four flaps, the guts spill out immediately (the term for this translates as "spilling the guts," which has religious significance because the soul or vital essence was believed to reside there and so to be liberated--purified--by this act). The most famous modern example of this, mentioned by Mishima, was the suicide of a high school principal around the turn of the last century--the principal felt that to go on living would dishonor the memory of the recently deceased emperor he had served (picture a suddenly pale [OK, "paler"] English teacher reading about this, thinking, "Oh, God. What kind of people have I come to live among?"). This act was praised all around Japan at the time; fortunately for high school principals (and their shocked ALTs), times have changed. Another shock ("Toto, I don't think we're in Kansas anymore") came from being reminded by the book that until the end of the war Japan was a country where it was not only legal but conceivable to sell your 12 or 13 year old daughter to a brothel (to be fair, this seemed to only happen when a family faced starvation, which was most of the time for a great deal of the rural population).
       When I suggested above that his being more famous in the west for his suicide than for his work was "right," I didn't mean to damn his work; what I meant was that he made his death absolutely integral to his literature--an indistinguishable part of the same project. His most famous work is a series of four novels begun about ten years before he died; the morning of the day he sliced open his belly, he turned in the last pages of the proofs of the fourth novel, and I am sure that when he originally conceived the sequence, he also decided on his suicide, and that he did not see seppuku as what he would do after completing his literary work but as the final step in that work. The books are wonderful, though the reading of them is immensely complicated by knowing where the author's values lay--otherwise, a reader could easily read the books as very sane and sensitive explorations that make their characters' insane passions understandable and worthy of empathy. I shouldn't care what the author intended--but when it so strangely twists the characters and events, I cannot ignore it. Although, I can't say that reading these novels has helped me understand my students, colleagues, and neighbors much better, they have given me some idea of the country that evolved into the Japan of today (it was weirder than anything sci-fi writers ever managed to come up with); it's riveting to think what nostalgia must mean here. Even though Mishima died within my lifetime and would be only slightly older than my father had his romanticism been more conventual (for men or women rather than for death), he didn't belong even to the prewar Japan of his youth but to a Japan that ended around 1870, and may have been a fantasy even then, if a more sustainable one. He doesn't have much to do with my junior high school students. And yet....
       More than ever, I'm glad I chose to call my web site "Life on Mars."

O genki de

Peter

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