On Disaster Preparedness: Tips for ALTs

When I first came to Japan, senior ALTs assured all the new arrivals that since Shimane Prefecture does not sit on the ring of fire in the Pacific Ocean, big earthquakes are rare in this area. However, the longer I’ve lived in Japan, the more I’ve asked myself questions about how prepared I really am for a disaster or an emergency.

Earthquakes can still happen in Shimane. Some of my teachers at my bigger school told me that the year before I arrived, there was a small earthquake in the middle of the school day. Nothing was damaged and no one was hurt, but school was cancelled for the day.

A couple of weeks ago, a chime sounded from everyone’s phones in the staff room. One of my teachers told me it was a test for the missile alert system; in case a missile from North Korea started flying over Japan.

Not too long ago, there was a fire at a hot spring near Izumo station. No one was hurt, and no other buildings except for the hot springs’ was damaged. But many of the buildings in Izumo are built so close together, that it could be easy for fires to spread if the conditions were right.

Like the rest of Japan, Izumo is full of narrow roads that are shared by cars, bikes, and pedestrians. If you’re using one of these roads, you have to constantly be aware that you’re not putting yourself or someone else in danger.

When I asked myself if I really knew what to do in any of these situations, I found I was pretty unsure. For that reason, I took the opportunity last Saturday to go to a disaster preparedness class for foreigners at Izumo’s Fire Station. This week, I want to share a bit about what I learned so that any current or aspiring ALTs can be a bit more confident should they ever have to face a disaster or emergency in Japan.

 

Earthquakes

  1. Phone Alarms

If you buy a phone in Japan that’s served by Soft Bank or one of the other big phone companies in Japan, your phone will come with a built-in alarm for earthquakes. When it goes off, this alarm will chime and say, “Jishin desu. Jishin desu.” Earthquake. Earthquake. When you hear this, protect your head, and get as low to the ground as you possibly can. Ideally, you should hide under a sturdy table and away from heavy furniture that can fall over.

I didn’t buy a phone when I came to Japan. I just switched the SIM card in my phone from the States. For this reason, I don’t have a built-in alarm. However, a friend told me that you can download disaster alert apps for earthquakes and other disasters. If you’re using a phone from your home country when you arrive in Japan, look up disaster apps that will work for your phone.

 

  1. The News

After an earthquake stops, you should listen to the news so that you can hear tsunami warnings. You can listen to the news either through a TV, a handheld radio, or possibly the radio in your car if you have one. Make sure you have some way of listening to the news in Japan. Specifically, tune in to NHK Satellite Broadcast on TV or NHK Radio 2 Broadcast.

 

  1. Gas and Electricity Safety

If you’re using the stove when an earthquake happens, DO NOT go to turn off the gas. Many gas ranges in Japan will automatically turn off during an earthquake. Once the shaking stops, though, you should turn off your gas valve and turn off your circuit breakers. If you smell gas, open all the windows, and call the gas company after you exit the building. DO NOT use any electric lights or open flames if you smell gas.

 

  1. Go Outside

If you’re inside when an earthquake happens, open doors and windows so that you have multiple ways to get outside. Turn off your gas and electricity, grab your emergency kit, and go outside as soon as you can. You should go somewhere that’s away from large buildings.

Around whatever city you live in, you’ll probably see signs that look like this.

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These are places you should go immediately after an earthquake happens. Take note of where the nearest ones to you are as soon as you can. The one closest to me is a park near my house. Many of the parks around Izumo are also evacuation sites. Wait here for instructions on what to do next.

 

  1. Shelters

In some cases, you may need to go to emergency shelters after an earthquake. Shelters in Izumo have signs that look just like the Evacuation Area signs, except they explicitly say that they’re a shelter rather than an Evacuation Area.

Like the evacuation sites, look for the shelters closest to you as soon as you can, and practice walking there sometime. Shelters could be places like schools, the city hall, or other places like community centers or event halls.

 

  1. Emergency Kits

Before an earthquake happens, begin gathering things for an emergency kit. At stores around Japan, you can buy things like backpacks, first aid kits, bottled water, and non-perishable foods to put in this kit. This is the checklist I got from the Izumo Fire Station.

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If you’re worried about the expense of buying everything at once, buy one or two things each time you go to the store. Or, better yet, if your house or apartment had other ALTs living in it before you, look around and you’ll probably find that you already have things like a basic first aid kit.

When gathering food for your kit, make sure you get things that you usually eat. This way, you can eat the food and replace it after a time to keep it from getting old. I’ve been told you should change the water you keep around every six months, and pay attention to the expiration dates on whatever food you gather.

Make sure you have enough food and water for at least seven days.

 

  1. Heavy Furniture

To keep things like bookshelves or refrigerators from falling over, you can buy tension rods like these.

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To use them, stick one between the furniture and the ceiling and extend it until it fits tightly between the furniture and the ceiling.

Also, take a look around the area where you sleep. If there is something heavy that could fall on you in your sleep, move it away from you or make sure to secure it. I had to do this recently. After hearing this advice, I realized that the clothes dryer I used was higher up and not secured. I put the dryer in a lower spot as soon as I realized that.

The last thing you should be wary of is objects on furniture. These could fall off during an earthquake, so make sure heavy objects can’t fall on you when you sleep or when you’re hiding under a table. If you can, figure out some way to secure these objects.

 

  1. Glass

In some stores, you can buy a sticky film to put on windows or glass casings. In an earthquake, this film will keep broken glass in place so that it doesn’t litter your floor. After an earthquake, make sure to be careful of any broken glass or other sharp objects. Have some shoes ready to walk around your apartment with so that you don’t injure your feet.

9. Neighbors

Wherever you live, get to know your neighbors. In the disaster preparedness class I took, there was a lot of emphasis on helping each other during a disaster, and making sure you can provide some help to others.

Starting to get to know the people you live close to can be as simple as saying Ohayougozaimasu, konnichiwa, or konbanwa whenever you see your neighbors. When you greet people, make sure to use polite Japanese, especially if you’re talking to older people. Going to international events as often as you can or participating in neighborhood disaster drills is another good way to get to know people in the community.

One way that I began talking with the people who live across from me was during a snowstorm this winter. My neighbor noticed me digging my car out of the snow so I could go to work, and he asked me if I needed help. He also asked me, “Don’t they cancel work during this kind of weather in the United States? Japanese people work too hard.” Offer people help when you can. Offer greetings when you see people. Whether you become close with your neighbors or not, it helps to at least know who they are so you can help each other during an emergency.    

 

Fire, Injuries, and Accidents

 

  1. Emergency Number

The emergency number in Japan is 119. Some cities have translation services (Izumo does), but not every city will. Find out if your city has emergency translators as soon as you can. Just in case there is no translation service, try to learn the Japanese vocabulary for “ambulance,” “accident,” “fire,” and other words related to emergencies. You should also memorize your address in Japanese and the names of any other landmark buildings and streets.

 

  1. Useful Phrases

Fire = kaji

            Ambulance = kyu kyu sha

            (Car) Accident = jikko

            Fire! = kaji da! (Shout this when you see a fire to warn other people in the  area.)

 

  1. Fire Extinguishers

Fire extinguishers in Japan are red. To use them, pull out the pin that’s on top of the extinguisher, detach the hose from the side, and squeeze the black handles when you’re ready to spray the fire.

A fire extinguisher’s spray will be able to reach about five to six meters, and will only spray for about fifteen seconds before it starts running out. Make sure you’re within five or six meters of the fire before you start spraying.

Also, DO NOT throw a fire extinguished into the fire. This won’t work the way you think it will.

 

  1. Car Accidents

If you hit another car, you must call the police to report it whether the accident is major or not. If you hit a person, it’s especially important to call the police, even if the person you hit says that they’re fine. The police number in Japan is 110.

 

  1. Drinking and Driving

If you drink any amount of alcohol, you are not allowed to drive or ride a bike. Whether you had one glass or five, you’ll get in trouble. If you go out somewhere and you plan on drinking, take public transportation or carpool with someone.

 

Typhoons

 

  1. Drive Safe

Typhoons (heavy rain and strong wind) are pretty common in Japan. Sometimes, school is canceled during particularly bad days (although staff is often still required to go to school). If you drive a car, make sure you drive more carefully than usual during a typhoon. The weather may make it more difficult to use a car or bike because it will limit your visibility, and possibly affect your steering.

2. Water Safety 

           If you live near water, keep an eye on how high it gets during a typhoon. You may need to put sandbags around water to keep an area from flooding.

 

I hope these tips help anyone who’s been worrying about this kind of thing. Whether you live in Japan, or are just traveling, it helps to know what to do just in case. If you live or have lived in Japan and notice something I missed, please let me know! I’d love to keep this up to date.

Stay safe!

 

 

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On Graduation: Part Two, the Ceremony

Last Saturday, I had to be at school at my usual time in a black suit with black shoes. All the other teachers wore the same thing (except for two third year teachers who wore hakama), and every student showed up to school in their uniforms.

Did I mention this was on a Saturday?

The Saturday of the graduation ceremony! I wrote about all the rehearsal leading up to this in my last post, and after anticipating it all week, I loved seeing everything come together!

When I got to school, the main entrance was draped with flags printed with the school’s name. Tables covered in flowers were set up just inside the entrance for parents to sign in. The third year homeroom teachers went to meet their classes in their usual rooms, and the first and second years went to the gym to practice all the songs we’d be singing one more time.

 

The entire gym floor had been covered with mats, and the aisle between all the chairs for students and parents was lined with potted flowers. The gym’s stage was decorated with Japan’s flag, Izumo city’s flag, and the school flag. A large bonzai tree sat on the center podium. A few kerosene heaters were working to keep the gym warm. The first and second year students helped to set all of this up and clean the school the day before. Now, they got to see their efforts contributing to this event.

After the third years filed into the gym with the school band playing to welcome them, we got started. We stood to sing Japan’s national anthem, and after some words from the vice principal, students started being called to the stage to receive their diplomas. At all the graduations I grew up with, receiving diplomas was always the last thing to do in the ceremony, so I was surprised that it happened so quickly here. I was also surprised by the silence as the graduating students walked across the stage. Back home, you’re technically not supposed to cheer for students getting their diplomas until the very end, but everyone ignores that rule. That’s why, when the third years started walking across the stage, I really wanted to clap for them, but everyone else in the gym was completely silent, so I didn’t.

To receive their diplomas, a student would step in front of the principal, who holds out the diploma. The student takes the diploma first with one hand, then the other. Then they hold the diploma over their head, bow, and take a step to the side so that the next student can come to the podium. Once you see all the little steps students have to go through just to move around at graduation, you completely understand why rehearsal is so important. The third years had definitely taken practice seriously, because they seemed to know what to do without even thinking too hard. Actually, the formality of graduation reminded me a bit of Japanese tea ceremony. When you perform a tea ceremony, you have to be very aware of how you hold yourself, how you receive or give something, how you move from one thing to another. The same kind of idea seemed to be present in this ceremony.

After all the graduating students had been given their diplomas, the speeches began. The principal, alumni, and an underclassman all gave speeches congratulating the third years. The speech by the underclassman was especially touching. She delivered a speech thanking her upperclassmen for their leadership in club activities and other school activities, and to say how much she would really miss them. This was the point where I heard sniffles from somewhere in the gym. The student on stage seemed to be close to crying, too, but she held herself together.

After this came my favorite part of the whole ceremony. All the students stood up. The third years turned to face the underclassmen sitting behind them, and all the students sang the graduation song to each other. A good luck from the underclassmen to the upperclassmen, and a goodbye from the upperclassmen to the underclassmen.

After the ceremony was over, the third years went back to their homeroom classes to say some final words to their homeroom teacher and classmates, and to receive a small gift. Since the third years I knew the best were all in different classes, I walked around to see what each class was doing. One teacher brought a guitar and sang for his students, and after the final goodbyes were done, groups of students started gathering together so that their parents could take a class picture.

To end the whole day, me and most of the other teachers gathered inside the entrance to the school, and sent off the third years as they walked out of the school for the last time. This was the point when I could actually say goodbye to the students myself. Everyone took their time leaving as they tried to find teachers they wanted pictures with and talked with their friends. A lot of students had started crying at this point. From what other people have told me, it’s very common in Japan for middle school friends to go to different high schools. For that reason, graduation can be a really emotional time for some students. One student I was saying goodbye to actually started crying as we were talking.

After a long time mingling outside, some of the teachers, had to get ready to host club activities for the first and second year students, so one of the teachers came out of the school with a megaphone and told the third years they had to go home now.

Every school’s graduation is a little bit different in setup depending on what level of school it is and where you are. In general, though, if you go to a graduation ceremony in Japan, here are some essential things to know:

1. Unless you’re a student, dress code is a black suit. If you’re wearing a tie, wear a white one! Don’t wear a black one because those are associated with funerals. 

2. It’s probably going to be cold wherever the ceremony is held, so dress in layers. 

3. If you don’t know what to do, ask one of the teachers. They’re been doing this for years and they’ll know how to help you. 

4. Be prepared for the possibility of crying. 

For any current ALTs out there, I hope you enjoyed this graduation season and can enjoy many more if you’re staying in Japan for a while longer! I definitely enjoyed my first experience with graduation. Seeing everyone graduate has already got me thinking about the next school year. In just a few weeks, new first years will be coming and the second years I’m teaching now will only be a year away from their own graduation!

卒業をおめでとう!

 

On Graduation: Part One, Rehearsal

Graduation for all my students is this Saturday. This is definitely one of the busiest times of the year! On top of final exams for this term, students and teachers need to prepare for the graduation ceremony, and get ready for the school’s closing ceremony, which is a couple weeks from now. Since graduation in Japan is something that’s pretty unique when compared to other countries (especially my home country), I want to dedicate these next couple of posts to talking about my impressions of middle school graduation in Japan!

During Tuesday’s fifth and sixth periods at my bigger school, we had our first graduation rehearsal. The first thing I noticed was how seriously everyone took this. Every grade of students attended, and they had to bring their own chairs from their classrooms into the gym and line them up by class. For the first part of the rehearsal, the students had to practice bowing.

One of the teachers stood in front of the students and told them to stand up.

“Gokiritsu kudasai!”

The students stood up. The teacher immediately said, “Too slow, sit back down.”

The students sat back down.

“Gokiritsu kudasai!”

The students stood up.

“Better. Boys in the center, you’re slow. You over here, fantastic! Try again.”

The students sat back down.

“Gokiritsu kudasai!”

The students stood up.

“Excellent! Now rei! Bow!”

The practice continued like this for a while. Stand up quickly, bow for a count of two and then stand up straight again at a count of three, sit back down all at once when we tell you to sit down. Before and after all of this, don’t move, don’t turn you’re head to look around. You’re either third years or one step closer to becoming third years, so you can do this!

I asked some of my teachers about the reason behind the formality of everything, and they told me that it’s just because graduation is such an important occasion. Leaving middle school is a milestone, and so it’s important to acknowledge that by taking the ceremony seriously and having good manners.

The second half of rehearsal was dedicated to practicing the graduation song. There are a few different songs that are popular to sing at graduations in Japan, and we sang one called “Tabidachi no hi ni.” One student sat on the stage playing the piano. The rest of the students stood up and sang as the music teacher directed them. We took the song a verse at a time, and the music teacher would give the students directions on when and for how long to hold notes, which syllables to enunciate, et cetera. The song is really beautiful! It’s about spreading your wings with courage, and riding the wind with hope.

Today, the Friday before the actual ceremony, we had no classes. This morning, two people from the school’s alumni association came to give a speech to the students. They also presented each of the third year with gifts; an inkan, a name stamp that’s used as a signature in Japan, and a round case for each student to hold their graduation certificate in.

From here, we practiced more key parts of the graduation ceremony. We practiced the graduation song, the school song, and Japan’s national anthem. The third years practiced walking in and out of the gym, which was actually pretty exciting to watch! Before the third years walked in, the doors to the gym were closed. Some members of the school band stood on the second tier of the gym and played trumpets. Then, some teachers opened the doors to the gym and the whole school band started playing while the third years walked in two by two. Teachers and the other students had to clap for the third years the entire time they were entering and exiting the gym. There are a lot of students at my bigger school, so clapping for them gives your arms more of a workout than you would think!

So far, I think my favorite part of the graduation ceremony is when the students sing “Tabidachi no hi ni.” Not only is the song beautiful, but to sing it, the third years will turn around to face the second and first years. The students sing the song to each other. In this way, the third years get to tell their underclassman goodbye and good luck, and the underclassman get to say it back to their graduating class.

I like that the whole school gets to participate in the graduation ceremony. Doing this seems to make graduation a celebration for the whole school, not just the graduating class. I like the little bit of significance that this adds to the passing of each grade’s time. Not everyone is leaving school on the day of the ceremony, but it’s still good to acknowledge passing from one grade to the next. Also, it seems good to send off each year’s graduating class as a school. Events throughout the year like the Sports Festival and the Culture Festival have given the students a lot of time to work with each other outside of their own classes and grades. It’s nice that everyone gets the opportunity to take part in saying goodbye to the upperclassmen.

The ceremony starts early tomorrow. I can’t wait to see it!

Destination: Inasanohama Beach

I don’t know how I managed to forget to write about Inasanohama even though I’ve lived in Izumo almost seven months now. Well anyway, I’ll write about it now!

Inasanohama is a small beach within walking distance of Izumo Taisha. Just follow the main road the runs past the Starbucks and the general parking lot, and you’ll eventually run into it. This beach has gorgeous, unique sunsets, swimming in the summer, and I’ve even seen a few surfers out in the water lately! On top of all of that, this beach, like many places in Izumo, has some strong ties with ancient mythology.

Every year during the tenth month of the lunar calendar, all of the Shinto gods in Japan are said to leave their respective shrines (except for Ebisu) and gather together in Izumo. They stay at Izumo Taisha for the rest of the month, feasting and planning what kinds of connections people will make in the next year. This time of year is called kamiarizuki, the Month of Gods, and it all begins with a ceremony at Inasanohama. I tried going to this ceremony last year, but I went later than I should have and ended up at the back of a giant crowd surrounding the priests performing the ceremony. That said, if you want to try and go, make sure you come early. The earlier the better. Some people were already gathered at the beach at four or five p.m. even though nothing starts until later in the evening. If you don’t mind crowds, though, I do recommend going! Before the ceremony, giant lights are lit around the beach to make sure everyone can see where they’re going. Once the ceremony starts, all those lights are turned off. Everyone has to be silent. All you can hear is the waves and the priests from Izumo Taisha receiving the gods. The only remaining light is the stars and the bonfires the priests have lit. Once the ceremony is done, the priests lead a small parade back to Izumo Taisha.

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Even when nothing is going on at this beach, it a great place to walk around. Especially if you can see it at sunset. Just inside the surf is Benten-jima, a rock formation with a tiny shrine built on top of it. Benten, the sea deity enshrined here, is believed to protect people who enter the ocean. Photographers come every day to try and get the perfect picture of this island and the ocean. I’ve gone a few different times already. The view is a little bit different every time, and it can be difficult to leave!

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Also, if you’re a fan of beachcombing, Inasanohama is the place for you!

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Whenever I’ve gone looking for something at Inasanohama, I’ve found something interesting each time! Tiny, colorful shells, larger, white clamshells, little sand dollars, and the skeletons of sea urchins. I’ve also found the skeletons of what I’m pretty sure is some other spiny sea creature, but I think it looks a lot like a little alien skeleton.

All in all, Inasanohama is a must-see if you happen to be in the Taisha area.

One last tip if you’re thinking about seeing kamiarizuki. Since so many people come to watch it, you’re probably going to get pressed closer to people than you ever thought you could be as everyone tries to leave the beach or follow the parade. Imagine a mosh pit at Disneyland. If you go with someone, link up arms. If you hate crowds, watch the ceremony from afar and then book it back to Izumo Taisha before the crowds get there. Also, don’t expect kamiarizuki to be like other festivals in Japan. Compared to your typical festival, it’s very quiet. No one wants to disturb the gods while they meet, so everyone is supposed to refrain from making too much noise.

If you decide to visit Inasanohama, I hope you enjoy it!