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An alternative look at life in the Land of the Rising Sun, coming from its southernmost prefecture, the island of Okinawa.
Posted By Dave on July 8th, 2014

http://www.biginjapan.co/biginjapan/getting-healthy-in-leeds-with-v-physique-body-by-design/

Those who have known me a while will know that I just about kept my body shape in control (mainly in Okinawa through sweating generally due to the heat and humidity) or because of walking so much with my car dying.  It definitely wasn’t due to exercise though!  But after a couple of months of being back in England […]

 

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Back to England!

Posted By Dave on November 19th, 2013

It’s been 9 years, 3 months and 19 days since I landed in Tokyo, a little bleary-eyed but eager to see what the Land of the Rising Sun would hold for me.  The plan was to stay here a couple of years and then go back to England and start a career in my real passion: IT.  As we all know, life rarely goes to plan and it’s taken me almost a decade of amazing experiences and life in Japan before I’ve felt ready to return to the UK.  But that’s exactly what I’ll be doing at the start of 2014.

After a difficult year teaching in the Maldives in 2003, things turned around and I was lucky enough to teach at one of the best high schools in Okinawa.  I can honestly say, hand on heart, that throughout the 5 years I was working there I never had a bad day at work.  Weekends were things that gave me a little chance to dive before going back into school, full of energy the following Monday morning.  The principal with a strong idea of where he wanted the school to go, and the staff worked hard to get there.  Combined with some of the most diligent and hard-working students you could come across (many of whom are now experiencing success in life and work throughout Japan and beyond), it created a recipe for success.

Since then I’ve taught at a kindergarten and junior high school, worked as a PADI Master Scuba Diver Trainer, and a copy editor for an Okinawan website and magazine.  But over the past couple of years I’ve been thinking about a return to England, and have been studying a lot to get a foothold in the IT industry.  Cisco, CompTIA and Microsoft exams have been taken and certifications obtained, as well as taking work on and watching online webinars throughout the night whenever I could in order to expand my skillset and experience.  And then I heard that in early November, following a series of interviews, I’d was offered a dream position working in cybersecurity for a multinational business services company.

But a start early in 2014 means that I’ve now got around 7 weeks to tie up all my loose ends (I didn’t even know any of them were loose a couple of weeks ago!), and get set up for life back in the north of England.  There’s a huge amount to do, on both sides of the world, and since I got the news I’ve been running on little sleep; I’m going by the mentality that I can sleep on the plane in late December!  Things to sell, things to buy, people to say goodbye to, workplaces to leave etc.  It’s a lot to do and a lot to think about.  It’s going to be a big change and very challenging, especially in the first couple of months, but I’ve got one chance to make a success of this, and there’s no question that’s what I’m going to do.  Whatever it takes.

So Big in Japan is going to relocate somewhat, but the site and name will stay the same and my fondness for the country (despite my constant cynicism about things) will remain.  I’ve been here almost a third of my life, and right now Okinawa is almost entirely my life.

I’ll write more if I have time over the next month about the things I’ll miss in Okinawa, and of course some of the things I might not miss so much.  For now, thanks as always for reading.

NK Missile Launch Flies Over Okinawa, Japan

Posted By Dave on December 12th, 2012

At 9:51 this morning a rocket was fired from northwestern DPRK into the skies, heading south.  The rocket flew over southern Japan, namely Okinawa and going right over the island of Ishigaki, with the last pieces of debris falling into the ocean near the Philippines, early reports are saying.

Whether this was actually an attempted satellite launch (unknown yet if it was a success or not) as the DPRK are claiming, or a long-range missile test is up for debate, but it seems to have traveled further than previous attempts, and I think I’ve lost on the sweepstake (my money was on a flight time of 2 minutes).

The launch was followed by the phones at work suddenly going crazy with emails from the Prefectural Office warning everyone of impending doom, and just as they were coming through I heard fighters scramble from Kadena US Air Force base here in Okinawa.  And with fair reason, if you look below at this image from BBC News.NK missile trajectory

 

The planned launch was due to fly right over Ishigaki, and early reports are saying it stuck to its course pretty well.  Now I haven’t got my ruler and measuring tape out, but it certainly looks like it’s gone much further than any previous launches, and the DPRK government, you would expect, would be pleased.  If it was a satellite launch, whether the satellite has actually reached an orbit will be determined over the coming hours and days.

But once again the theme from the Japanese government has been, “Lots of rhetoric, no action”.  Just days ago, we were told that the Japanese military had been told by the government to shoot down the rocket should any part of it threaten to fall on Japanese territory.  If the rocket has stuck to its course then it’s gone right over a Japanese island and through the Okinawan prefecture, with the Japanese government stating no attempt was made to bring it down.  Now the only explanations are:

  • The Defence Ministry had supreme confidence that the launch was successful and was therefore posing no danger to Japanese people.
  • They thought seeing as it was going over Okinawa it wasn’t worth the effort.

Now call me a cynic (probably one of the kinder things I’ve been called) but if that launch had gone over Tokyo (where they’d put PAC 3 launchers on the top of the Defence Ministry building) then there’s no doubt it would have been downed.

Anyway, that’s the excitement from Japan right now.  I’m expecting some disappointment from the opposition LDP party, who are expected to come back into power at next week’s election.  I am fairly confident they were hoping it would come closer to the mainland, so they could shoot it down and strengthen their claims that Japan’s military (sorry, self-defence forces) should be expanded.

Will update if I hear anything more of real interest.

UPDATE:  The Japanese government has made a statement regarding the launch.  They have described it as… wait for it… “extremely regrettable”.  Almost spat out my coffee when I read that!  You just knew that word was going to crop up!

UPDATE 2: The US is now reporting that an object has been put into space by the rocket.  So it’s looking like this launch was a clear success.

Problems with English Education in Japan: The Three C’s

Posted By Dave on September 6th, 2012

I don’t want this to turn into a rant as such, but rather a collection of thoughts and conclusions I’ve made after 8 years of teaching in Japan.  Everyone involved in the language education sector in Japan will freely admit that English education has been on a level at best over the past decade or 2, and many arguments could be made that the standard of English from school-leavers is actually decreasing.  At the same time, education in South Korea, China, Taiwan and elsewhere in Asia are experiencing English language booms with children becoming very proficient in the language from an early age.  While there are a number of reasons causing this relative decline in Japan, I think there are three main contributing factors resulting in this status quo.  These are a suppression of creativity in students, and the lack of challenge presented to them.

Creativity

I write this from the standpoint of a teacher at a junior high school, although the latter factor certainly applies to later grades of elementary school, and is an issue I will go into later.  The education system in Japan revolves around a set event, and preparing for it.  At elementary school the students are focused towards getting into Junior High School; once they get there their sole goal is to pass the high school entrance exam (for those that will go to high school).  Once into high school, the aim of every student is to pass the “Centre Test”, the Japanese name for the university entrance exam, which will focus the rest of their lives.  Anything that is not involved with getting to these goals is deemed unimportant, and grammar points not to be tested (even if important to learn for English language comprehension) are passed over.

At the senior high school level, I was lucky enough to teach at a high level school, which offered two English-based subjects that were not on the Center Test: Model United Nations and PCLL (a subject with 3 components: speech, skit and debate).  When these subjects were introduced, teachers were met by a strong resistance from parents, who complained that their children shouldn’t be wasting their time on things that wouldn’t directly be tested.  It took a strong principal and group of teachers to defend their position and to try to explain the benefits that the subjects would have; both within the English language skills spectrum, and throughout their range of studies and beyond.  The argument was made that these subjects were not just preparing students living in a small village in Okinawa for a single test, but giving the adults of tomorrow the skills, knowledge and means to develop for life in a truly global society.  I know there are a whole bunch of buzzwords in there, but it’s the best way to explain it.  And whenever I meet former students from that high school (who are invariably doing very well in their lives), they remember clearly those classes, the themes discussed, and the skills they learnt.

It was a high-level school to begin with, but the fact that it was willing to look a little outside the box transformed it from being an average to low level school 15 years ago, to one of the top 3 in Okinawa today.  But look down to the general situation of English language education at junior high schools in Japan (even more so in Okinawa), and things are much different.  Scarily enough, I am still unaware if there is any actual syllabus set out by the Ministry of Education in Japan that states what students should know at the end of each year of learning.  The textbooks that are approved by the Ministry of Education certainly teach different material at different points to students, so there is no consistency there.  But what there is consistency in, is removing all traces of creativity from students.  At elementary school students learn that the answer to the question, “How are you?” is, “I’m fine, thank you.  And you?”.  There is no other response.  At junior high school you would expect students to be able to be given range to express their real feelings, but even then they are limited to a handful.  You are allowed to be good, fine, tired, hungry or have stomach ache.  Other feelings will not be on the end of year exam and so should not really be discussed.

Students are spoon-fed information so much that they become unable to think of even the simplest things by themselves.  A perfect example of this would be earlier in this academic year.  The sentence being learned (sentences are almost always learned in phrase form, meaning students are frequently unable to understand how the grammatical structures in them are formed) was “I visited my grandmother at 8 o’clock”.  After a little practice most of the students were able to say it reasonably well, and I wanted to give them a chance to control what they say, so asked the first student to say the sentence but change the time from 8 o’clock to something else.  This was explained in Japanese so the student understood (more on that later too), who made as big an acknowledgement as your typical Japanese junior high school student can muster that they understood.  And then they were given the floor to make a modified sentence.  And for almost 2 minutes the class waited.  The student put their head down, looked into their book, looked out of the window hoping focus would shift off them, consulted with two or three of their classmates, and then eventually gave the same original answer, “I visited my grandmother at 8 o’clock”.  It took another student a minute before they could actually change the time to nine o’clock.  A similar barrier was created when the family member was asked to be changed from mother.  This seems to be the norm, rather than the exception.  They get drilled into them a sentence structure (in this case “my mother…”) that it is the only thing they can comprehend.  When given the chance to use a word like “father”, “brother” or “sister” in place of it, the choice seems overwhelming to them rendering them unable to make what many would deem to be a simple and unimportant choice.

This lack of creativity being observed, and even encouraged by some English teachers, affects the students somewhat when they come to exams, but much more it is rendering many incapable of communicating effectively in English in a real-life environment.  Because they learn certain phrases and set structures only, whenever anything goes outside of those boundaries, the students are unable to follow it and respond.  Originality is something that is seldom heard or read, as the set phrases are the only way the students know how to express their ideas.

I should not that this is definitely not the case all the time.  Students frequently have the ability to impress and surprise with their English and willingness to try connecting grammar points they have learnt, but not necessarily learnt together, in order to communicate their thoughts.  These students, even if they don’t have the best raw English ability, are usually the ones that see the biggest improvement in their language skills.  But it is definitely the majority from my experiences.

Challenge

The second large part is the lack of a challenge for students.  I am a firm believer that if you challenge students then you will get the best out of them.  It is a fine balancing act, as pushing them too much and in the wrong way can provoke resentment and a student simply refusing to learn (especially as the student enters their teens at junior high school).  But I feel many teachers in Japan are catering their classes for the lowest level learner present (some who try hard but find English very difficult, and others who are unwilling to learn in any of their classes).  This means the majority of students who actually start the activity (many just wait for the answers or do nothing at all) finish quickly because the activities are not at all testing for them.

Let me give you an example.  A handout that accompanied a textbook chapter was recently given to 2nd year English students (13-14 years old).   The page was roughly set up as you can see below:

 *********************************************************

Grammar point: “Yes, I am.” / “No, I am not.”

Explanation in Japanese about meaning and usage of grammar point.

 

Question 1

  1. Are you going to clean your room tomorrow?

Y_________________________________________________________

Hint: Yes

Question 2

  1. Are you going to see your friends tomorrow?

Y_________________________________________________________

Hint: Yes

Question 3

  1. Are you going to visit your grandmother tomorrow?

Y_________________________________________________________

Hint: Yes

 *********************************************************

 It then went on using the same style but for “No, I am not”.  Learning then went on to cover the “you”, “he”, “she”, “we”, and “they” forms, but the activities were virtually the same; simply copying the answer from the section above.  Following that worksheet, focus was moved onto another point and this section just covered could be checked off the list and forgotten about.  No expansion of answers, experimenting with making their own questions (studied in the previous class) and asking their peers was permitted, because it wouldn’t be in the test and therefore was superfluous.  And there was no chance to take what they had learnt and take it to the next level, increasing their understanding of that point and giving them the chance to link it to other points that know now and will learn in the future.

Vocabulary tests are infrequent, and when they occur students are usually given 5 words to learn, with them knowing the exact order in which they will come in the test.  Consequently, you have students only practicing in the last 5 minutes before the test and then being desperate to get the paper so they can write down what is in their short term memory before they forget it.  Asking a student the meaning of one of their test words 15 minutes into the class is akin to getting blood out of a stone, as it has long since disappeared from their short term memory banks.  Once again, no real assessment of English knowledge or ability is attained by conducting the test; it is only seeing who can spit out the exact words they were given in the 30s-1min between closing their books and receiving their test paper.  I can only speak from my point of view, but at the junior high school I had weekly vocabulary tests (either L1->L2 or L2->L1, or a combination of both; not known until the test was given), which comprised of at least 20-30 words, with 10-15 being chosen at random.  When this was mentioned previously to co-workers they remarked it must have been so hard for students to do.  It wasn’t easy sometimes, but it made us very efficient learners.

Once again the students who try to push themselves (which must be done individually, due to there being no “gifted learners” class or similar in most schools) by working to understand more than the brief outline presented to them reap the rewards, when it comes to test time and also outside the classroom, when conducting any activities in English.

But now that I mentioned tests, it brings me onto another “C” that is a large factor in why English education, and in other subjects too, is undergoing such problems in Japan.

Consequences

Consequences, or rather lack of them, cannot be underestimated in the mediocrity of English language education in Japan.  Thinking back, I feel I studied pretty hard at school, mainly because I know my parents had given me a great opportunity, and I didn’t want to waste it.  In certain subjects I worked hard through fear of incurring the wrath of the teacher; others have said they worked hard to get into a good university, because they wanted their parents to be happy etc.  Homework was always done to the best of my ability and tests were studied hard for.  We all knew that if weekly vocabulary tests were failed (under 50%), retests would occur lunchtimes or after school every day (same vocabulary list but different test words) until 50% was achieved.  Some students found it difficult at first or didn’t like the retests, but within a month or so everyone was trying hard to get the best score possible.  At the other end of the scale, high scores were put towards points to a “Good record” in your homework diary book; a record of every piece of work you had to do at home, and which parents had to sign each week, so they could see how well you were doing, or trouble you had been involved in at school.  This was a simple system but motivated some people greatly as they wanted to impress their parents and show what they could do.

Now let’s jump over to Okinawa and the vocabulary test I mentioned above consisting of 5 words that the students already know the order of, and they are the only words they have to learn.  A student doesn’t study at all, sleeps for the duration of the 10 minute test and gets 0 points.  They don’t really care because there is no consequence of the test.  It may or may not be put into the student’s final term or year-end grade, but since these grades have no real meaning either there is no incentive for them to put any effort in.  Retests are non-existent at lunchtime or after school (in the case of the latter I was told, “Students want to go home or have clubs”, and sports clubs usually take precedent over academic things).  So you can end up with a student at the end of the year who has completed no homework assignments, got 0 in every test and possibly mustered the energy to write their name on their end of year exam before going to sleep, and just being told they must work harder next year.  They don’t, and so the process continues until they leave the school system.  There is a reward system in place in the form of stickers or stamps, at a lot of junior high schools, and these motivate some students to volunteer and do work.  But I always remember reading a quote from someone much more skilled than me, who said that prizes/bribes/rewards are good, but care should be taken to ensure they don’t become the sole reason for learning.  Once this happens, and the reward is removed, so is the motivation for studying.

The discipline system does leave a good deal to be desired too in Japanese schools.  I’m not advocating bringing back corporal punishment (initially wrote “capital punishment”… a Freudian slip, perhaps?), but students seem to wield complete power, even more so than in Western schools.  It is virtually impossible to remove a student from a class because it is “depriving them of an education”, even if their actions are depriving the rest of the class of the chance to learn.  Which can lead to anarchic classes sometimes.  In a class I witnessed a few weeks ago there were 20 students; 7 were sleeping, 6 were talking with each other across the classroom, 3 were reading their own books, with only 4 students attempting to listen to the teacher.  Every so often the teacher would try to wake up some of the students or stop them talking to each other.  The students would just wave or push away the teacher and go back to what they were doing.  In addition, principles and vice-principles are not involved in the disciplining; that role being assigned to a different teacher each year.

This has ended up being a lot longer than I thought it would be, so thank you if you’ve stuck with it and got through it all.  These aren’t all the issues involved, and there are some good sides to English education here.  Hopefully in an article I the near future I will take a look at some of the other factors involved in teaching English here in Japan.

Let me know if you agree or disagree with anything (or everything!) I’ve written.

Posted in News

Police Finally Admit Bullying Caused Suicide of 13-Year Old

Posted By Dave on July 21st, 2012

I just come to Starbucks to relax with a copy of the Daily Yomiuri to catch up with the week’s news, and 30 minutes later I’m logging into my site because of a story I’ve read.  As you read I’m sure you’ll understand why I was compelled to write.

The story itself goes back to October of last year, although the origins of it are some time before that.  The place is a 14th floor apartment in Otsu City, Shiga prefecture in Japan.  A 13-year old junior high school boy leaps to his death from the balcony one evening, after finally taking more than he could handle.

An initial investigation into the suicide found instances of severe bullying of the boy by 3 other students.  Some of the things the boy had been subjected to by the 3 other students included:

  • Being beaten while held, and burned with cigarette butts.
  • Being forced to give them money and a PIN number to a bank account.
  • Being forced to practice committing suicide repeatedly while they watched.
  • Being forced to shoplift for them.
  • Having his property and school books ripped up and damaged by them.

Before he died one of his last acts was to send voicemail messages to the 3 that had bullied him, saying simply, “I am going to die”.  The reply from one of them was just as simple.  “You should die”.  In addition, it was also said that the teachers had been told about the bullying of this boy occurring, but had done nothing.  To pretty much everyone, it was clear that the actions of these 3 students had driven the boy to his death.  To everyone it seems, except the police.

Three times the father had gone to the police filing reports that his son had died as a result of bullying, and three times the police had refused to accept his reports.  Their excuse, sorry, reason, was that they said it wasn’t clear what had caused the boy’s suicide, as teachers had told them they thought the boy may have been having some problems at home too.  The teachers didn’t think the bullying was even worth mentioning.

The board of education had surveyed some of the school’s students following the suicide, and asked them about bullying.  In their initial reports though, only some of the findings were not made public (namely the forced practice suicides).  I’m guessing because the BoE was worried that it might reveal there was a big problem at the school or in the area, and force further investigation and more work for them.  In fact, it wasn’t until this story started to get more press attention both in Japan and overseas that the BoE released the full (so far as we know) results of the survey, and the police decided to accept the father’s reports.  I am guessing the latter is because the police want to be perceived as doing something.  I have no doubt that if the press hadn’t kept reporting about this story and it started to spread more that the police would have been happy to continue refusing to accept the father’s report and commence an investigation.  So they asked the 3 suspects to voluntarily come in with their parents to answer some questions.

Apparently, the boys didn’t deny anything that was accused of them, but in a statement that said “It wasn’t bullying.  It was just a prank”.  Of course – it’s normal for kids to force their classmates to practice committing suicide.  Just fun and games.  Simple open and shut case.  It was just a joke that the 13 year old boy who threw himself from his apartment balcony didn’t get the punchline of.  No remorse at all seems to be being shown by the boys, and it is because of the victim taking things too seriously that there is a problem.

And to be honest that’s probably as far as the investigation will go, especially as more than a few Japanese blogs are stating that one of the suspect’s fathers is someone the police would not want to upset.  That usually means either member of a Yakuza group, government official or a senior police officer.  The former is often flung around but wouldn’t surprise mel like father like son, maybe?  And there’s also the fact that the kids are untouchable here in Japan, even more so than in other countries.  They can shoplift, steal cars & motorbikes and then crash them, cause damage to property etc and nothing can be done because they are just children until they are 20.

Now while the teachers should take some part of the blame for what has happened, especially if they were fully aware of what was going on and simply turned a blind eye, I can understand their position.  Teachers are put under a lot of pressure from parents, and are blamed for almost every problem a student has.  If a student is caused smoking, it is because the teachers haven’t educated them well enough.  If a student is absent from school, the teachers are responsible and frequently go out to try to find them.  If bullying occurs in a school, it is down to the atmosphere the teachers have created.  Parents are removed from any responsibility in the bringing up of their child as soon as they enter.  Thus the 2 people that should be the most authoritative figures in a child’s life are no longer respected or listened to by them.  By the time a student (especially a boy, who is given much more freedom to do whatever he wants, regardless of the consequences) hits junior high school, the parents have no control at all.  And the final result can be what you have just read about here.

Now the police have said they’ll investigate, I’m pretty sure that’s the last we will hear of this story.  Everything will be forgotten about until the next bullying-caused suicide in a year or so’s time, when it will be brought to the public’s eye again before once again fading away.  It’s a sad state of affairs, but is another one of those situations you just don’t see changing any time soon.

The Japanese PM Roundabout

Posted By Dave on July 9th, 2012

Well 12 months has almost passed so it’s just about time for Japan to elect it’s next annual Prime Minister.  If you keep up to date with this site (not difficult given the pitiful number of updates I’ve been producing recently) or with things happening in Japan, you have to laugh at the state of politics here.  Well, it’s either laugh or cry with despair.  Since the “suntanned lizard” Junichiro Koizumi (also about the only PM in recent history with any sort of personality, see right) left office in 2006, no Premier has lasted longer than 14 months in the job.

The Democratic Party of Japan took over office from the Liberal Democratic Party (different name, same old types and ideas) in 2009 and they didn’t want to break the trend, currently on their third Prime Minster.  Elections are meant to be held every 4 years, but that has been unthinkable in the last decade.  And it looks like we could be due for one in the next few months.

The ruling party, “led” by Yoshihiko Noda (see left) has been wanting to raise the level of consumption tax from it’s current 5% level up to 10%.  They are claiming it is needed for the rebuilding of northern Japan after the 2011 earthquake & tsunami, coupled with the “man-made disaster” at Fukushima.  Of course they couldn’t hold TEPCO responsible as they are a big company and line the pockets of many, so they had to get money somehow to rebuild the pachinko parlours (Japan’s most popular way of getting around its laws against gambling) that were lost.  Although it is also very possible that they decided Noda’s popularity wasn’t dropping as quickly as it should do, and so had to take drastic action.  Well, maybe not “very possible” but definitely within the realms of possibility.  A consumption tax would also be more preferable to an income-based tax rise, as the latter would most likely affect the higher earners more.  Couldn’t have that, so the consumption tax will affect all equally.

When the DPJ propsed this raising of consumption tax, the LDP fought against it.  Mainly because it was an idea from the opposition.  I did hear some arguments mentioned by LDP members, but to anyone that dabbles in logic they weren’t really substantiated.  This lack of support from the opposition upset Noda and so he tried pushing harder against the LDP to get them to agree to this rise.  They didn’t budge and the stalemate continued.  Eventually the PM came up with an ingenious ultimatum.  “If you opposition don’t support me, I’ll be forced to dissolve parliament and have a general election!”.  The noise that followed was that of 307 palms slapping against their foreheads in disbelief at what had just been said.  “OK.  Do it” was the general opposition response.  Unbelievably, Noda hadn’t been expecting this!

Since then there have been fractures in the ruling party, with a former leader leaving the DPJ along with 49 other members, and Noda’s popularity is dropping faster than Andy Murray’s chance of ever winning a Grand Slam event.  Am fully expecting an election come September, and the the prospect of yet another prime minister until late 2013.  And then it will all start again…

North Korea: Up, up, up and a failure!

Posted By Dave on April 13th, 2012

In news that is not really going to shock anyone with more than a couple of brain cells to rub together, this morning’s rocket/satellite/missile launch by DPRK has appeared to have ended in abject failure.  The Tongchang-dong launched at 7:39 local time and was up for a… well, for a minute.  Which makes it marginally more successful than when Richard Hammond & James May attempted to put a Reliant Robin into space and use it as the new space shuttle (see below).

Whether it was a rocket, a satellite launch or a missile test is by the by; the fact is that it was quite an impressive, but understandable failure.  You’ve got to admire them sticking to the task, but their people don’t have the skills and technology together to make it successful.  It’s like me going out and saying I’m going to build a house.  I might be able to put something together that looks like a house, and make people believe that it’s a house, but it’ll all fall apart once the wind blows against it.  Compounded by the fact that it was Friday 13th, it was never going to be a success.  They should have really left it until Sunday 15th (Kim Il Sung’s birthday) for the launch.  Am going to guess the DPRK State Media will report a successful launch, or just give no report at all to its people about it.

The Japanese government and media will probably be some of the most disappointed, as they were really trying to use this to play the victim card and show its people how scary the DPRK is and how we should be in constant fear of them.  And they’ve done a good job of that over the past few weeks, culminating in my school (under orders from the city) distributing some flyer of some sort to each student yesterday, warning them to take care, and presumably offering advice on what to do should they find a missile impaling them to the ground.  With all the stuff going on in Japan domestically, is this the most important thing to be advising students about?

But it’s passed, so now Japan will continue its inevitable push to a new “Prime Minister for a year” in August or September (Noda’s latest approval ratings have reached a record low, at 25% according to the Daily Yomiuri).  Had the test been a success, no doubt it could have been used by the incumbent party as something to try and rally people around (‘Forget about how bad we are… look at the scary North Koreans”).  And the Okinawan media will britruipng it’s focus back from projecting North Korea as the enemy to projecting the US military as public enemy number 1.  The status quo has been restored.

This little story also gives me the chance to remind you of my travelogue with plenty of pictures and stories from my trip to North Korea in 2005.  Take a look here.

Someone’s Not Telling The Truth… Who Could It Be?

Posted By Dave on April 2nd, 2012

If you read my post last Thursday, you’ll know that according to a Okinawa base-wide email that was sent a couple of days previous, the Ministry for the Environment has stated that no radioactive debris will be sent out of the Fukushima area.  I stated then that the information being given out was contrary to what a number of sources were saying.  And it also appears to be contrary to what Mr. Goshi Hosono is saying.  “Who is he?” you may ask.  The Minister for the Environment!

According to this article and accompanying video, he was in Kyoto on Saturday trying to drum up support for disposal of (radioactive debris).  His trip included meeting with the governor of Kyoto and a plan to give out pamphlets and make an appeal for public support outside Kyoto station.  As you can see from the article, it didn’t go to plan as people in Kyoto, like people in Okinawa, don’t really want radioactive waste storing in their backyard.  Below is the front page of the pamphlet that was being handed out.

In my last post I did ask you to question everything and make your own decisions, so I will offer a slightly different viewpoint on this.  The article and source does concur with the statement made to SOFA members in Okinawa about Iwate and Miyagi being the only prefectures officially accepting debris from Fukushima, but it did not state that their Ministry for the Environment is actively campaigning for more prefectures and cities to accept this waste.  Also, my Japanglish isn’t good enough to fully understand those videos, although I get a gist of it.  If someone can post a full translation in the comments below, it would be awesome and would help us all understand things a little easier.

Another interesting note about the storage and disposal of waste is that it has already been removed from the vast majority of areas affected by the earthquake and Tsunami from March 11th, 2011.  You can see these from the many before/after photos that are being published.  So the debris is being stored somewhere right now.  Let’s assume for a second that all of this debris has been tested for radiation and is coming back as negative.  Would it not just be easier to keep the debris stored in its current location as it awaits incineration or disposal?

The last point worth noting is that if the Minister of the Environment is appealing for non-radioactive debris to be disposed in other prefectures around Japan (which is what Prime Minister Noda is urging, and relaxing laws to make it easier), then you have to wonder what exactly the government is classing as radioactive.  Some of you might know of the story from May last year when the government decided to raise the amount of radiation that was safe for children, so that schools in the fallout area could reopen (source).  While immense public outrage and international coverage of this story caused a U-turn (I expect the latter being a bigger factor than the former), the initial plan was to raise the safe radioactive level to 20 times what it was previously.  So with that in mind, it is very possible that the government will just raise the level required for them to declare something is radioactive.  Given what you’ve just read, is it that much beyond the realms of possibility?

Anyway, those are my thoughts for now.  Any comments or thoughts are always appreciated.  If you disagree or have a different view on it, let me know.  I’m more than happy to hear thoughts from all sides.  Is anyone in favour of Okinawa taking non-radioactive debris, at all?

Okinawa Going Nuclear: A Few Updates

Posted By Dave on March 29th, 2012

What a difference a week makes.  Just 9 days ago I published an article based around a story from fukushima-diary.com about how two places in Okinawa (Onna Village and Nago City) had said they would accept radioactive waste from the Fukushima nuclear reactor disaster; a story that not too many were aware of at the time.  Today, I am writing this on the way to a meeting in Naha which RBC (local television) will be attending and the problem will be discussed.  Indeed, this has gathered pace so much that yesterday an email was sent out to military members Okinawa-wide, stresing that the Ministry for the Environment has stated that no radioactive waste will be stored beyond the Fukushima area.  More about that later.

Soon after I posted my original article up, people started sharing it and talking about it.  A guy called James Pankiewicz, owner of the Dojo Bar in Naha, decided to take this matter to heart, and created a Facebook group about it, called “A clear and loud “No Way” to radioactive debris on Okinawa“.  Yup, no chance of misinterpreting the point of this group!  And from then things have spiralled.  The group formed their own logo (pictured right), are making online and paper petitions and gathering signatures, in both English and Japanese.  The English petition is here; if you haven’t clicked and added your support then please do.  Who knows if it will have any effect, but it can do no harm whatsoever.

James has taken this much further than I ever would, and I applaud him and everyone else who have become involved for caring.  I’m happy to report these kind of things and the only times I overstate things, I make it very tongue-in-cheek that I’m doing so.  But my aim was just to bring people’s attention to it.

And attention certainly has come.  700 signatures to this online petition, people handing out flyers in English and Japanese; RBC and NHK news companies talked to and consulted, and even the US Military newspaper, Stars and Stripes, running an article.  And here is where the plot thickens even more.  Yesterday morning, Kadena Air Force Base’s Public Affairs office sent this out Okinawa-wide to all military members (or Air Force members, not 100% sure):

There are rumors circulating via social media and email concerning the possibility of radioactive material being shipped to Okinawa from the Fukushima area. Here is the latest information from the American Consulate in Okinawa.

According to the Japan Ministry of the Environment, none of the radioactive debris will be shipped. All radioactive debris will remain in the Fukushima area. The only tsunami debris considered being sent elsewhere is the NON-radioactive tsunami debris from Iwate and Miyagi prefectures. No decision has been made by the Government of Japan where that non-radioactive debris will be shipped to. Any and all debris will be inspected before being shipped, and it will not be shipped if it is contaminated.

BOTTOM LINE: No radioactive debris is being shipped to Okinawa.

vr
18th Wing Public Affairs

Now, while I would like to believe this is the case, this does seem very strange.  Firstly, because the final statement goes against what Nago City, Onna Village, Yomitan Village and Naha City are saying.  In addition, Okianwan newspaper the Ryukyu Shimpo published stories in Japanese about this a week before I started mentioning it.  And finally, it would seem that the Ministry for the Environment is going against with Prime Minister Noda has stated, about all of Japan working together, and local cities helping with the burden of dealing with the radioactive waste.  The Japanese government is not renowned for being completely honest and open, especially when it comes to both public safety and Okinawa.  So the question is: who do you trust?  The governments who are trying to quash any rumours and stop any public unrest about the situation, or the media outlets and personal bloggers?  While newspapers and TV companies might have a financial interest in the story (more controversial stories get more readers buying their newspapers or watching their shows), but if this was the case then more would be being made of the story.  As it is, it was just a couple of relatively small reports informing people of what is happening and no follow-ups.

And people do seem to be waking up in Japan to the fact that the government isn’t always as open as they should be with them.  Okinawans have had this skepticism for a long time, but it appears to be spreading.  Both Japanese bloggers and foreigners here in Japan have talked about it to me recently.  Now I’m definitely not saying everyone should take to the streets and start rioting (I’d quite like a chance to have my visa renewed and not be labelled a conspirator!), but the past 12 months have changed a lot of things regarding people’s perceptions of the government in Japan.  Especially in the past 6 months, people have started asking questions that 3 or 4 years ago I couldn’t imagine people accepting and would assume they would just accept.  It will be an interesting thing to watch over the next 12 months and beyond to see if the Japanese people push to get their own voices heard against the government.  I’m not talking about Japan being the next Egypt or Libya, but just how people and society will evolve here.

Well, I’m going to make my way down to Naha in a little while for this press conference.  If you have the chance, please take a look at the petition.  I’m not asking you to sign it, but just to think about it and try to find an answer for yourself.  Question what you read and hear, even on here.  Discussion and questioning is what helps us progress and evolve.  It’s when we just blindly accept & follow that we lose our way.

http://www.biginjapan.co/biginjapan/two-cities-in-okinawa-ready-to-accept-radioactive-waste/

“Support by Eating” Campaign in Japan Claims its First Victim

Posted By Dave on March 22nd, 2012

On something of a roll here, a brief scan around of some of the blogs got me looking at a few stories that the media here will probably not be reporting.  And it’s a good way to follow the previous article about radiation from Fukushima entering the food chain, even here in Okinawa.

So, sometime after March 11th last year, the government realised that people, unsurprisingly, wanted nothing to do with Fukushima’s produce.  But there was all of this produce going to waste and… well a little radiation can’t do any harm, can it?  So with that in mind they hired Dentsu, one of Japan’s largest advertising companies, to devise a campaign to get people eating produce made from northern Japan once again, regardless of whether it’s safe or not.

The result was the “Let’s Support by Eating” campaign.  For a start, the English in suspiciously correct (I would have hoped for a “Let’s Supporting the Japan by Enjoying Eat… in English!” campaign).  But, Engrish humour aside this campaign was set up to sound like a charity or NPO set up to promote Japanese food, rather than being the brainchild of a government-sponsored advertising campaign.  The advertisement comes from an organization supposedly called Food Action Nippon, but whose headquarters is the same as the Dentsu advertising company.  While not a crime in itself, it is another example of attempted deception by the government, and potentially putting a lot of the population at risk.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d3njJ8Ppp2A

I should also add, there were numerous reports that Dentsu were also being hired by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry to track articles on blogs and social media accounts for anti-nuclear stories that may be perceived to be contrary to the government’s/TEPCO’s line on things.  Blogs were getting spammed with comments, Twitter accounts hacked, and other things happening to these sites and accounts.  Could just be a coincidence, although I’m not a big believer in those.

And this provides a convenient segway to the second part of this article.  As part of this campaign, a face was needed that Japanese customers would trust.  That ruled out any politician, AKB48 were busy promoting every other product in the whole of Japan, and Hello Kitty was reported as saying, “I ain’t going anywhere near that ****.”  So it wasn’t looking good.  They needed someone they could control, someone without an opinion of their own who could be manipulated at will, but who the public would trust.  Of course, a Japanese idol!

First off, I am not talking about some Japanese version of American Idol.  The Japanese idol community is a group of around 30-50 people who seem to be on almost every TV show.  On the whole the are vacuous, soulless creatures; the men having less testosterone than your average nunnery, and the women portrayed as either super-cute squeaky-voiced beings, or frumpy comedians who should be laughed at and not with.  But Japanese people seem to lap them up so who am I to criticise?  And on the whole they seem to be believed by many Japanese, regardless of what they say.

Cue Yamaguchi Tatsuya, from the group TOKIO.  I really hope he was forced by his talent agency (most likely) and didn’t know or have any option in doing what he did, but he was to be one of the main advocates of this campaign.  He was pictured all over, eating produce from the Fukushima area and beyond, claiming that it’s so “oishiiiiii” (meaning “delicious”) and that everyone should do the same to support Japan at this time.

Well, at the last measurement, he had a radiation level of 20.47Bq/Kg of Caesium 137 in his body.  This has a half-life of around 30 years and accumulates in the bones.  I sincerely hope it doesn’t happen, but with levels like that, it is surely only a matter of time until he is diagnosed with some sort of cancer.  But the campaign continues, telling people that they should do their bit to support Japan by eating Japanese produce, regardless of where it’s from, and especially if it’s from the Tohoku area.

At the very least it’s negligent, and is a campaign that’s putting the whole country at risk.  That warm fuzzy feeling you’re getting inside you isn’t because you’re helping the country; it’s the caesium eating away at your organs.

12″ Margherita Pizza, with Extra Olives, Peppers, and… Caesium???

Posted By Dave on March 22nd, 2012

http://www.biginjapan.co/biginjapan/12-margherita-pizza-with-extra-olives-peppers-and-caesium/

Slight follow-up from the previous two days’ stories about Okinawan towns (Onna Village, Nago City and Naha City) accepting radioactive debris from the Fukushima area.  I should stress it is a slightly older article I’ve come across, back from February 8th, but is still worth reporting to those who have not seen it.

For those of you worrying that there’s a chance some of this radiation from the Fukushima disaster may enter the food chain, then worry no longer.  It has.  Having read over the last year of numerous occasions where radiation has been reported in bags of rice (which have had their “produced in…” locations changed to sound like they haven’t come from the Fukushima area, it is both interesting and worrying to hear it’s entering via another means now.

At least 4 restaurants in Okinawa, including 3 pizza shops and 1 soba noodle restaurant, have bought firewood from close to the Fukushima reactor (source).  The firewood was used to heat the pizza ovens and the ash was reported to have a radiation level from caesium of almost 40,000Bq/Kg.  To put this into perspective, according to a UN official, over 50Bq/Kg in the human body will cause irreparable lesions in internal organs.  Now people aren’t going out and just digesting kilograms of pizza ash, but it’s surely enough to make you think a little.  So those were the levels in one of the pizza shops; in the soba restaurant, levels of up to 8,000Bq/Kg were recorded from the ash, and much more worryingly, 258Bq/Kg in the noodles themselves.

Whether the stores knew exactly what they were buying is unclear, but as it seems that everything from the Fukushima area is being sold at a very low price, I am going to hazard a guess they knew it wasn’t just a regular kind of sale.  The distributor has said the firewood was washed using a pressure washer, which is apparently going to make all the difference, according to officials at Motosu City.

It’s possible that these were the only restaurants are the only ones to have purchased irradiated produce from the Fukushima to equip their restaurant or feed their customers.  It is also possible that Nago, Onna and Naha are trying to help store/recycle this radioactive debris out of the goodness of their heart and for no profit whatsoever.  I’m the eternal skeptic, but I doubt either are likely.

 

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