There was amazement in the staff room in Yokohama on Thursday night when it was suddenly announced by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that all schools across the nation would be closed for a month from Monday. This wouldn’t affect us: we are a preparatory or cram school company – so I had assumed that this would have meant even more lessons, as fretting parents (oh the furrowed brows of all the mothers panicking about their children not getting enough homework!) would push their kids to study study study – but even the thought of the students being off for such a long time was completely unheard of : this is a truly unprecedented situation.
And yet yesterday when I went into work for a meeting with the vice-principal, I was told that we too have no lessons from next week, and yesterday evening was my impromptu last day of work for the next six weeks. I will leave it to your imagination how I feel about that, but it was also interesting to hear yesterday how my students felt about what is essentially going to be a quarantine. I hadn’t realized this, but they are supposed to stay holed up in their houses or apartment blocks this entire time, not allowed to go out (even though not a single young person has died from the virus – those that have succumbed are the elderly, including, alas, a woman in her seventies who was taken to hospital by ambulance from our local station, Ofuna, I have just heard…..Christ – IT HAS ARRIVED!!!!). At any rate, there weren’t the whoops of delight I was expecting, at least not among the majority.
Ironically, it has been a good few weeks of teaching, one of the principle reasons being that this has been a great topic of conversation. All the vocabulary! Where the consensus here is that you are supposed to pretend that nothing is wrong and put on a brave face, I decide to not patronise the children in this way and instead discuss it all honestly (with perhaps a little too much black humour; you sometimes see some kids wincing); the majority, though, seeming to enjoy being able to discuss what is happening around them in English: it gives a little valve to let out some of the pressure.
Just as I would be at that age, a minority of the students were utterly gleeful and besides them with joy at the prospect of finally having a respite from the endless drudgery of the Japanese school life, where you basically have not a moment to yourself apart from Sunday morning, but even then your nagging mother will probably be screeching ‘benkyo shinasai‘ at you ; this is the principle reason I refuse to give them any homework as I will not make their burden any greater. For once, they will actually get a chance to just be. And despite the edict, three quarters of the naughtier ones (who I always prefer – there is nothing worse for me than mindless obedience: I am an anarchic instigator of independent thought) are already planning to meet their friends outside and were saying it’s ok as long as your teacher doesn’t find out you left your house, and they can’t be everywhere checking everyone. The mischievous glint in their eyes made me laugh, even though, as the more earnest and law-abiding type kids were indignantly huffing (quite rightly) – in that case you are ruining the whole point of the school closures in the first place: you are supposed to stay at home to contain the virus, you are selfish, you are stupid.
To my surprise (I would have just been luxuriating in the bliss of playing my 12″s at home and reading books, watching films in heaven, at that age; not that I hated school, but I always wanted my time more than anything else. Always), the majority of the kids I was teaching were just shouting ‘hima’: ‘himaaaaaaaaaaaaa’ – we will have nothing to do, it will be so boring : I am going to die of boredom. UGH. Stuck in the house all day! with my brother and annoying sister. I want to go outside, I want to play. I hate it! They will be clambering up the walls. The ENTIRE COUNTRY. Hard to imagine. All that energy. Sequestered. What will happen? I taught them the expression cabin fever: they will be craving for fresh air: : one student in the baseball club said that the maniacally controlling coach of his club has insisted on the most intricately detailed diary imaginable (baseball clubs here in Japan are UNBELIEVABLE – you can’t imagine the levels of endurance required to survive in one); he is expected to detail practically every minute of his daily activities, including precisely how many grams of rice he has consumed at each meal, his weight before bedtime, how many catches and pitches he has performed (I am sure that will do wonders for his mother’s knick knacks – smash goes the bored-to-death glass figurine as the hormone-infused ball annihilates its porcelain into smithereens in one lightning-quick throw); other students were up in arms when I told them this story – NO WAY! I would never do that – I am going to play games! As long as I have comics and computer games I will be alright! One steely eyed, hilarious girl I enjoy teaching vowed, hidden behind her mask, to find a way to get a computer game system no matter what it takes, despite the fact that her previous one had been confiscated by her tedious parents in a bid to make her study yet more. NO: I AM GOING TO GET GAME.
These are strange times. I am fortunate, in that when I am at home, I feel relaxed and tranquil, up here on the hill in Kitakamakura. When I look out the window, though it is essentially suburbia, I can see trees and mountains wherever I look, and I know the entire area is a zen Buddhist temple complex reaching back centuries that has been carved into as a residential area. There is something in the air. It is quite a good place to be in quarantine if that should be necessary (we have started stocking up on food just in case this situation gets out of hand). But if you were living in one of those built up apartment buildings near Ofuna or Yokohama, with no green, just the usual unimaginative lay out with the fitted kitchen, the kids’ room, and its bunkbeds and the western style furniture in the living room with the bright lights on and the TV blaring, I can imagine the students scaling the walls and going nuts. And this is just the initial recommendation. What if it does actually become a nationwide, worldwide pandemic, and the Olympic Games are cancelled? (those wet markets in China do have quite a lot of answer for). How long will they be confined? And will it all be effective in any case ? Perhaps. Who knows. Schools are breeding grounds, and then they will just bring it home to the grandmothers. It is better than nothing, and should curtail the spread. But the government has been inept and ineffective so far. Ostrich central. Pretend everything is fine. If you do that, the problem will go away. Just check the temperatures of a few people arriving from Wuhan in the first few weeks but let millions enter the country. Let infected people go home and rest or stay in hotels; malingering, left to their own devices.
I, like the majority of the people here, am furious about the useless handling of the Diamond Princess debacle and the lack of isolation units and proper thought that went into it. It is pathetic. When I wrote dramatically a couple of weeks ago about being in Yokohama in the vicinity of the cruise ship, I didn’t actually think that the passengers would literally be let off in their hundreds, even thousands, while I was there, and allowed, unmonitored, to get on public transport, in flimsy masks made of gauze: pronounced negative, but in actually fact, quite possibly walking, commuting, incubators of the virus. Carrying it, already, in their systems. Oblivious. For all know, I already have the damn thing.