Life in Lockdown

Sometime last month, Japan went into a full-blown state of emergency. What did this mean? Well, actually not much. There were changes to daily life. Restaurants closed or became takeout only. I believe most bars closed as well, ditto other entertainment places like malls, arcades, karaoke, and pachinko parlors. Even Disneyland and Universal Studios closed! Businesses that had the technology to let employees work from home, did, while ones not so equipped (read: 99% of companies) still had their employees come in. For schools, we still did the ol’ “students don’t come but teachers do” trick. Since ALTs are governed by different rules, however, we have been able to stay home for the entire last month. So, besides grocery shopping and one trip to the city to replace my broken glasses, I haven’t gone anywhere at all. When I have been out and about, though, places didn’t seem significantly more crowded or empty than normal, just maybe more social distancing in the way things were laid out or how people waited in line. The government and powers that be have no actual authority to enforce a lockdown beyond suggesting to people this is what they should do. For the most part, everyone has been obedient. I had seen some people having barbecues or congregating in karaoke bars that are still open, but eh, I dunno.

What with this plethora of free time I’ve had, I haven’t done too much. I’ve just been watching movies, unfortunately playing a lot of video games, but I’ve also written two short stories! The first, “Our Man in No Man’s,” is set in the German trenches of World War I, a lieutenant’s search for a missing private who also happens to be a huge prankster. The second, “The Man Who Killed Today,” chronicles the beginning of a 3000-mile journey across 1980s California as a hard-boiled detective teams up with a serial murderer. Anyways, especially recently, it is obvious that Japan is eager to start their “return to normalcy,” ramping down testing so much that for the last four days we have had *zero* new cases. Wow! Classes are starting back up this Thursday the 21st, and I myself will be back in the teacher’s chair come June 1st. So, very soon, the adventures shall continue!

 

Coronavirus Hits 1,000; Titanic Iceberg Soccer

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Saying goodbye to Siseko, pictured here whispering South African economy statistics. Credit goes to Julie S. for this photo.

You know that scene in Titanic where it’s just struck the iceberg and people are playing soccer with the ice chunks? That’s the kind of the spirit of this post. Since my last one, cases in Hyogo prefecture have trickled up to just over 100. I have a bad habit of underestimating/making light of disasters, and this one seems to be no exception either. A lot of the world is shutting down now, and it became more real when recently one of my closest friends here (together with two other people) all decided on Tuesday to quit their jobs, with four days’ notice to their schools, to move out of their apartments and fly out of the country on Sunday.

Japan, God bless it, REALLY hates change, and it is really resistant to corona-chan’s attempts to affect day-to-day life. Schools did close a week early for spring break, but they are still stubbornly going ahead with opening school as normal in April. Just yesterday, we had a sort of orientation for the incoming freshmen, with hundreds of kids running around the school all day. And as a “compromise” between exposing kids and closing schools, the usually-daily club activities have resumed practice, but *only* four days a week (instead of 6) and no more than two hours a day. Wowee! “Social distancing” has not yet even been recommended here, though the government does still come out to say “don’t travel between this and that prefecture unless necessary” every so often. A second motivator is that Japan really does not want to postpone the 2020 Olympics, so rumors are that the government is undertesting to keep numbers low. I have heard thirdhand (so take that with a grain of salt) of two JETs being told by doctors “you probably have coronavirus, but we won’t test you. Just stay home for two weeks,” and whatever reason for that your guess is as good as mine. UPDATE: As I wrote this post, it looks like Prime Minister Abe did admit they’ll have to postpone.

So, almost three months since corona began, Japan still isn’t shut down, and cases still haven’t exploded exponentially like they have in, say, Italy. As of writing, Japan has about 1,000 cases spread over the country. Businesses are all still open. Markets haven’t run out of anything, although toilet paper has become quite scarce and face masks disappeared since the beginning of this epidemic. Other than that, if you just totally ignore the news you’d never know this thing is going on in Japan. However, it’s only a matter of time until things really go south, given the total lack of any significant response or widespread quarantine practices, and the fact that around the world “it took 67 days… to reach 100,000 cases, 11 days for the second 100,000, and just four days for the third 100,000.” (source) Either that, or we find out that the quaint Japanese tradition of totally eschewing hand soap actually builds mega-immunity. I’ve already tempted fate once, because my trip to the Sapporo Snow Festival may very well have been ground zero. As I have said to many people in the ad nauseum conversations about it, what a crazy time to be alive. So, to the one person reading this, be thankful the ship hasn’t started leaking yet, but it DID hit that iceberg and it’s probably better to be padding those lifeboats than kicking ice around.

 

 

Coronavirus Strikes Japan!

I have lived through many health scares, from avian flu to zika virus (that is, they existed while I was alive), though they have never personally affected me. I thought coronavirus would be much the same, but little did I know that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe would create some ripples on Thursday the 27th by suddenly requesting ALL SCHOOLS in Japan to close the following Monday. This sent schools into a panic, in a bureaucratic system where I am required to submit “travel reports” for a 200-yen ($2) train fare that must be stamped by hand by me, office staff, the principal, and the board of education before I get it deposited back into my account weeks later. Not only that, but many schools are still finishing up final exams, and some haven’t even had their graduation ceremonies yet.

Yet, today, Monday, students are still streaming into schools. In fact, from what I heard most schools hated the move. Many, including mine, agreed in contravention of Abe’s advice to have one or two more days of school to finish up exams, and then close. And guess what, schools being closed just mean students don’t have to come. We teachers still have to.

This has been a rapidly developing situation, and it has finally given me enough material to make a blogpost about it. Although it had been happening all over Japan, first nearer Tokyo, and then down as close as Osaka, I thought it was only a matter of time before a case popped up in Hyogo. And one did, just last night! My local community center has cancelled all events for the next month. Trains were a ghost town on Saturday night, and as always, people are wearing surgical masks (which, by now, are almost impossible to find in stores). It has affected bigger things too, for example the Grand Sumo Tournament in March being closed to spectators. Things are happening, but there is no widespread panic you see in day-to-day life as the news are implying. At the end of this all, I hope that if nothing else, back in the West this’ll bring masks into vogue, because what’s not to love? They cover half your face and look good too! More to come soon, of course, as coronavirus starts to ravage Hyogo.

A Japanese Disaster Drill

A massive earthquake has struck Akashi. Or perhaps, a tsunami. Evacuate! To your nearest disaster center! And this area’s happens to be my very own Higashi-Harima High School. Today* was a mass disaster drill, where students gathered in the gym and practiced things like using blankets as stretchers, getting a taste of hinanshoku, or disaster food, and how to make platforms out of boxes, I guess. Green-jumpsuited members of the Nihon Bousaishi (Japan Disaster Prevention) Society were also present to look cool and show us the proper way to do things.

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“Everyone’s dead, hooray!”

 

It started in the morning, with all the kids running onto the school field to line up and take attendance. The atmosphere was very lively, kids were chatty and laughing, and we even had a few photographers there as if this were a really exciting, commemorable event. Everyone was in their athletic clothes, except for me in a shirt and tie. Opening ceremony was supposed to be the same day but it got cancelled for some reason.

After that, we went onward to the gym. Several members of the community had also shown up, mostly the elderly since this was a weekday morning. The good Bousaishi people (whose logo is the photo atop this post) gave us a peppy lecture about proper disaster practices. I couldn’t pick up much, sorry to say, so far all I know they could’ve been saying “cleanse the sinners with tsunamis” or “ALTs should jump into earthquakes” and I would just be nodding vigorously.

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Despite this being a drill, we were still given real disaster rations and encouraged to consume them. It was a bottle of “Postonic Water,” basically like unflavored Gatorade, and some incredibly bland fried rice. I think there was some chicken, vegetables, mushrooms? But almost no flavor at all. Even plain Japanese rice has more flavor– the Bousaishi people explained that disaster food should be easy to digest and as inoffensive as possible. Looks like the only disaster that day was the food, haha! Really, I appreciated it, of course. It was homemade by volunteer moms, and they had to have made hundreds of these for all the students and community members attending.

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After the distribution of blankets to each row of kids, the bousaishi members demonstrated how to make them into improvised stretchers– lay a kid in the middle, and roll it up on both sides towards them. Wow!

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Then, how to make platforms from cardboard boxes. Put together, they are surprisingly capable of supporting several schoolgirls, or schoolboys. Perhaps it’s for an impromptu hospital bed. Whoaaaa!

Anyways, that’s pretty much it. Stay safe out there!

* This actually took place a month ago, but I hadn’t published it till now.

Typhoon Twenty TERROR II: The Conclusion

Typhoon 20 came and went from my life like many friendships– short-lived but still memorable. Since the time I made my post, and up until 7 PM (the time it had been projected to hit), it was still windy, but not enough to chomp down on your cigar and declare, “Well, here it comes, boys!”The wind WAS picking up, but ever-so-gradually. I biked to work against 15mph winds, and biking back, it had probably picked up to 20mph. It was, of course, blowing against me both ways, because life shouldn’t ever be easy. It wasn’t pleasant, but it was still manageable.

Seven PM, I had some friends over. We had the door to open let the night breeze in. The breeze was a little stronger than normal, but as the night went on, it turned into a night wind. It started blowing our cards off the table, and it started slamming my door against the balcony like a guy who owes the mafia money. We closed the door and forgot about it– the wind was howling outside, but windy days happen, this didn’t seem too much different than normal. Ten PM rolls around, and the wind still sounds exactly the same. It’s about time I kicked my guests out, so around 11 PM everyone gets up to leave. I open the door for them to outside, and wham! There it is. The typhoon had finally arrived!

The air was water. The rain was so thick, it formed a shimmering, watery fog. The wind blew rain in layers. Trees swayed violently side to side. Anything that hadn’t been weighed down or secured was swept away by the wind. The typhoon claimed my balcony slippers. I found one of them the next day, on the completely opposite side of the building. The other one is forever lost. Emergency alerts told me that the elderly were being evacuated in Akashi City. “In so-and-so area, please get to high ground.” It was really weird to see live updates (via emergency alerts) and actually being inside the typhoon. It sounded like the apocalypse was here, but being in it, it was hectic but it was not hellacious.

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Many brave bikes fell in the wake of the typhoon.

I am proud to say I survived Typhoon 20, although I must admit that for all the hype, I was a little disappointed. Let’s hope Typhoon 21 rips my roof off or something!

Typhoon Twenty, TERROR from the East

I’ve been hearing about the incoming “Typhoon 20” for weeks now, far off yet close enough to make the local weather cooler and slightly breezier. Meanwhile, the vice-principal has just made an ominous announcement– from aikido to kendo and table tennis, all club activities are cancelled for today. Half the teachers have left the office. My supervisor suggested to me to take the rest of the day off before the typhoon hits. I didn’t because I would’ve had to cut into my paid time off.

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The news show graphs and projections with hectopascals, and even the local trains will stop running 6 hours earlier than they usually do. Meanwhile, it’s 3:20 PM at the time of writing, and it’s another beautiful-albeit-a-little-too-hot day. The sun is shining, the clouds are out, and the giant mutant bugs of Akashi zip around your face like any average day. Where is this dreaded typhoon I’ve been hearing about for almost two weeks now? More to come…