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EVENTUALITY EDUCATION

It really is sink or swim in Japanese schools

by Alice Gordenker

Life is never dull when your children attend local school in a foreign country. My kids have been in Japanese school for two years, but things still catch me by surprise. My daily thrill, if you can call it that, is reviewing the stacks of purinto (handouts) from the school. I never know quite what I’m going to find.

Take the other day, when my fifth-grader came home and presented his handouts with a flourish. “You’re gonna love this one,” he said, grinning as he pulled a piece of paper out of the pile. “It’s a real doozy.”

Now that my kids understand, more or less, what’s going on at school, I make them sit down with me when I go over the handouts. I read Japanese, more or less, but the kanji I don’t know always seem to be the critical ones for comprehension. Sometimes my kids can explain things to me. More or less.

I looked at the handout. “It seems you need a full change of clothes tomorrow,” I said, scanning the section on mochimono (things to bring). But why? I looked back at the words at the top of the page, which were, of course, the ones I couldn’t read. “OK,” I said to my son, “tell me why.”

“Because we’re going to jump in the pool with all our clothes on and see how many of us drown!” he announced happily. “My bet is on Karasawa and Maeda. They’ll sink like stones!”

Armed with that dubious explanation, I tried the words at the top of the handout again. Hmm. OK. Chaku-i-ei. “Swimming with clothes on.” Finally I understood. “In English, it’s called ‘survival swimming,’ ” I told my son. “They’re going to teach you what to do in case you ever fall into water by accident.”

I explained to him that more than 70 percent of drowning victims are wearing clothes when they fall into the water. The unexpected weight of wet clothing makes most people panic. And people don’t realize how hard it is to undress in the water, or to swim in wet clothes. They often use up too much energy trying to get out of their clothes, or swim to shore, and drown before help can come.

That’s why an increasing number of Japanese schools are teaching survival swimming. It’s an easy lesson to add to the course work because nearly all elementary schools in Japan have pools. They already teach swimming as part of the physical education curriculum. Four years ago, our school introduced a survival swimming lesson for fifth- and sixth-graders. Eventually, all students will participate in the annual exercise.

The next morning, after my son left with his spare clothes, I headed to school to observe. There are many ways to teach survival swimming, depending on the age and swimming abilities of the participants.

At our school, the kids started out in their swimsuits. Once everyone had done a few warmup laps, they climbed out to get their clothes. It was funny to watch 100 kids struggle to pull dry clothes onto wet bodies. Most of the kids had old clothes, but a few had assembled spiffy outfits for the occasion. Like the girl who wore a long denim skirt over high-top sneakers. And the boy who wore freshly pressed khakis, a white polo shirt and what looked like brand-new loafers. Over his wet bathing suit, mind you.

I was particularly amused to see that the kids all had suiei-boshi on. Come now, how many people are wearing bathing caps when they accidently fall into water? But caps are de rigueur at most Japanese pools. At our school, if you forget to bring your cap you have to sit out the lesson at the poolside. No exceptions. You’re apparently not even allowed to drown without a bathing cap.

As soon as they got back into the water, the exclamations started. “Omoi! (It’s so heavy!),” “Ugokenai! (I can’t move!)” The kids were really surprised by how much the wet clothing weighed them down.

“OK, now let’s try swimming,” a teacher called out. The kids attempted the crawl, which was impossible. They tried breast stroke. Not much easier. Finally, the teacher suggested they try bakku hira (elementary backstroke). Floating on their backs like that, it was easy to breathe. But it still wasn’t easy to move.

“You see how difficult it is to swim with clothes on?” the teacher asked. “That’s why you shouldn’t try to swim if it’s a long way to shore. The correct thing is to stay calm and just try to stay afloat until you can be rescued.”

At this point, the teachers challenged the kids to float for five minutes, pretending that’s how long it would take for help to arrive. About a third of the group was unable to float without putting their feet down. Which means that a third would have drowned had this been a real water accident.

After that sobering demonstration, the kids were hungry to learn techniques for staying afloat. One trick is to grab trash found floating in the water and make your own flotation device. The teachers demonstrated how to scoop air into a plastic bag. The kids experimented and discovered this works best if you float on your back and hold the inflated bag by your neck. The teachers also showed the kids how to stuff empty plastic bottles under their shirts. The advantage is that you don’t have to hold on to the bottle, and they keep you afloat even if you lose consciousness.

“Your clothes can actually help you,” the teacher explained. “That’s one reason you generally shouldn’t undress. If you can’t find a bag, you can scoop air into your shirt to make a bubble to help keep you afloat.”

My son thought the lesson was fun and interesting. I’m grateful the school gave him this experience, since it’s not the sort of lesson parents think to teach themselves, nor is it easy to arrange. But a few community pools offer survival swimming classes. If you can find one, I recommend you sign up.

Go ahead. Take the plunge. It might save your life.