Thu Oct 12 18:32:15 2000
To: newsletter
From: "Peter M. Rivard"
Subject: Japanese Fire Drill (no, really)

Hello, 10/12/2000

      I just fell into another Japanese twist on a familiar tradition. We had a fire drill in my more rural school yesterday. I was warned about this earlier in the day, so I was ready for it. The students, however, weren't. They just stood around with a "what the hell is that?" look on their faces. No one moved for the door. Then, there was an announcement over the PA that there was a fire in the kitchen, and that the students should move to the parking lot of the civic building across the road (this was all translated for me later). I stood by the door watching students leave so I could follow their cue on an important bit of cultural behavior: they did not stop by the door to change from their indoor shoes to their outdoor shoes (this was pretty surprising to me; I asked later if the announcement had especially instructed them not to change their shoes--in fact, it had). Now, I wonder if the students did know the siren meant fire; maybe in Japan they are trained to freeze and wait for the announcement when disaster strikes. I'll have to ask about that. After all this, the principal asked me how fire drills are different in America. I said there was no announcement, on the grounds that in real fires the electrical system is often the problem, so it may not work (response: "really?"). How do students know what to do? They practice how to evacuate and assemble outside the school early in the year, so when they hear the siren, they just go (response: "Wow!"). The vice-principal (the one who looks like a mobster but is really a nice guy) then asked what he should say to some Americans who are touring the school tomorrow if it catches fire. I said, "Fire." He asked how he would tell them where the fire was. I said, "Just say 'fire' and they will know to get out of the building" (it is a small building with at least two exits, marked in English and Japanese, in sight at all times). I suggested that he may want to warn them about the air raid siren that goes off just behind the school at 11:30, noon, and 5 pm (to let the farmers know when to eat lunch and when to go home). I said that in the midwest, where many of these teachers come from, students and teachers are trained to hide under desks when they hear that sound (I explained "tornado"). I also said I had been startled and confused when I first heard it, thinking it meant some sort of disaster. (My supervisor was doing a lot of translating at this point.) Then the vice-principal said that during the second war, people heard those sirens all the time, and then it meant there was an air raid (he said this about 1/3 in English, but with gestures and sound effects to make it clear). Everybody looked at him strangely (rule number one is "don't mention the war," and he was born after the war anyway); then I said, in Japanese with mock sheepishness, "Sorry." Big laugh. Then the principal said, "Sorry for Pearl Harbor." Big laugh all around. So I guess it's not all that sensitive.

      I'll be around tomorrow both to demonstrate the role of the ALT in the class and to help guide the American guests around, so maybe I will warn them about the air raid siren. And if the school catches fire, I'll say, "Fire. Get out." If it's an electrical fire, we'll be the only survivors.

      That's all. I hope all is well--I'm always hungry for news from friends, so please let me know if you have any to share.



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