When she first arrived in Japan from Ireland in 2008, Sarah Hickey was mostly concerned with adjusting to her new life in Fukushima Prefecture. The Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Programme placed her in Iwaki, which is itself a large city, but she found herself near the coast in less metropolitan surroundings.
“There was nothing there, just a supermarket and a school I was teaching at. It was an incredibly beautiful place — but it was tough,” she says.
Gradually, Hickey grew accustomed to her corner of Iwaki, where she taught English at several junior and senior high schools. One thing she wasn’t ready for were natural disasters, which she says scared her. She also doesn’t recall receiving information about what to during a natural disaster at school during JET’s Tokyo orientation or when she first arrived in Fukushima.
“We were never told anything. Nothing,” she says. “I did research myself, just online, but over time we experienced small earthquakes and I picked up on what other teachers did.”
These tiny temblors, however, did not come close to preparing her for the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11, 2011.
“I didn’t know what to do. People were running outside. Seeing Japanese people freak out was what freaked me out,” she says. “It wasn’t until after the big earthquake that we were told what to do in further situations.”
The school’s teachers rushed to get students living by the ocean who hadn’t gone to school that day, and when they returned Hickey followed them to the roof of a nearby elementary school.
“The tsunami came and we had to wait there for a few hours.
Hickey’s experience — likely shared by many more assistant language teachers (ALTs) and eikaiwa (English conversation) school instructors working in the Tohoku region — touches on a troubling blind spot that persists even three years after the disaster. In a country where the threat of earthquakes, typhoons and tsunami looms large, the role foreign English teachers should play in these scenarios can be murky. It’s not just a matter of taking cover under a desk, but knowing what to do when a natural disaster occurs while at work, and how to interact with coworkers and students who don’t speak the same language.
Even after the earthquake, many ALTs remain insufficiently prepared in the face of future disasters. The Association for Japan Exchange and Teaching (AJET) published a report in December regarding disaster awareness and preparedness in the JET community, in which 807 JET participants were surveyed about the topic. It said that while ALTs “consider themselves aware of potential disasters which could affect their area, they remain fairly unprepared for large-scale emergencies and natural disasters.”
The report states that The Council of Local Authorities for International Relations (CLAIR), which administers the JET Programme in cooperation with the government, offers ALTs “information about what to do in the event of an emergency” in the program’s general handbook and online, along with information at the initial Tokyo orientation and at subsequent prefectural meetings. However, it also suggests there is “a lack of flow and synchronization of the disaster and emergency information being passed down from the central JET Programme administration to the individual contracting organizations.”
The problem, the report says, is “there was no clear majority for any one source of information,” and thus different prefectures deliver different information to incoming teachers. Nate Olson, a prefectural adviser in Iwate Prefecture, says new ALTs there receive CLAIR booklets outlining what they should do during an earthquake. Akita Prefecture adviser Stephanie Hupp, meanwhile, says they talk to new arrivals about how to handle earthquakes. Most of the information is also more general — get under a table, prepare an earthquake kit — and not always school-specific. And even seemingly obvious information doesn’t register during a disaster.
“I didn’t know we had to get to higher ground if there was a tsunami,” Hickey says. “I know it’s common sense, but it isn’t something I would just immediately think of. I knew to go outside . . . but it’s still different when you have responsibilities.”
The best advice for an ALT is to learn what to do in an emergency well before a natural disaster occurs. All schools in Japan are required by law to make their own disaster manual, and every prefecture has its own local laws about what teachers must do during a calamity — every situation is different.
“At orientation, we highly emphasize the importance and responsibility of the individual to ask each school about the procedures in order to familiarize themselves with them as soon as possible,” says Randy Umetsu, the international relations coordinator in Akita.
ALTs and private eikaiwa instructors should talk to someone at each of their schools about where to go in the event of an earthquake or tsunami (the AJET report found that 54 percent of JET participants in coastal locations do not know where their nearest tsunami evacuation center is). Furthermore, it’s important to know what’s expected of you in such situations. Some Japanese teachers might expect the ALT to help get young students to a safer location, while others wouldn’t. Schools also usually have helmets for everybody, including the non-Japanese English instructor. Knowing where those are kept — along with emergency supplies, spare water and food — can be equally critical.
Schools should be holding fire, earthquake and, in the case of coastal communities, tsunami drills. Pay close attention during these, and ask to take part if you aren’t automatically invited to them.
ALTs working with private dispatch companies should talk to their schools along with someone at the main office to clarify expectations during an emergency and whom they should contact. Registering with your home country’s embassy is important, too.
For example, the Embassy of Canada asks that Canadians register at its website so it can check on its citizens’ well-being in an emergency. The embassy’s role is to facilitate the flow of information, keeping people informed and helping relatives at home get in touch. In extreme situations, the embassy may evacuate its citizens out of a disaster or conflict zone. The Japanese government, however, is responsible for emergency, relief and medical services in a time of crisis.
There is more information about what teachers should do in natural disasters at school online, but the bulk of it is in Japanese. AJET wants to fix that, and its report suggests the “current bilingual emergency system be updated and promoted” further. The organization also hopes to develop a more “unified voice from CLAIR down to contracting organizations and prefectural advisers,” and for more English-language material to be distributed.
For now, though, all instructors should take a proactive role in figuring out the rules of their individual schools or workplaces.
Quake kits are handy even outside crisis areas
Keeping an earthquake kit readily available is highly recommended, both for its practicality and the peace of mind it brings.
Some items are indispensable regardless of where you plan to keep your kit, such as a helmet or a protective hood to be worn during a disaster. Both a supply of bottled water and some nonperishable food are essential. Other items frequently found in a good kit include whistles, battery-powered lanterns, flashlights, portable radios, mobile phones, and crowbars and jacks.
Although these particular items can be useful in many situations, a disaster manual on the Education Ministry’s website recommends certain objects be kept in earthquake kits at schools. These include basic first aid items such as bandages and splints, as well as any medication specific to the needs of children within the classroom. Other items listed, such as paper cups and plates, disposable pocket heaters, buckets, towels and blankets, account for the likelihood that the contents of a classroom quake kit will need to be shared by a large number of people.
Even if you live outside of a disaster zone, there’s a chance that supplies will become scarce. Bottled water and toilet paper are among the items that tend to sell out quickly when disaster strikes another part of the country. (Mike Sunda)
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