With temperatures peaking across the Japanese archipelago, this week’s topic is very timely. A reader signing herself “Concerned Mum” wrote to Lifelines regarding the risks of heat stroke at Japanese schools. Her elementary school-aged daughter has twice been sent home sick after being made to stand or sit outside for extended periods in the sun:
Last year when she was in Grade 1 (in Tohoku), she sat out of a swimming lesson as she was recovering from a cold. She was forced to sit on hot concrete in an unshaded area on a 32-degree day, without a hat or drink. She consequently suffered from severe heat stroke.
Recently, at a different public school in Tokyo, she was sent to the nurse’s room with a stomachache and headache after being made to stand outside in the sun on a very hot day during the school’s morning meeting. I realize that the idea of gaman (withstanding discomfort) is a large part of the Japanese culture, but I do not believe that this concept should apply to defenseless children whose health and safety are in being placed in danger.
The reader adds that she and her husband contacted the current school and then the local board of education to express their frustration, and asked why there seemed to be no standard policy on sun safety in schools. Although they were assured there would a meeting at the BOE with local health officials and the department responsible for school operating policies, they have yet to hear back about this.
Heat stroke (also known as sun stroke, or netchūshō in Japanese) can be quite a common problem in Japan’s humid summer. With the current “Pokemon Go” craze coinciding with hotter temperatures, the government even issued a warning to players to be careful of heat stroke.
Young children, the elderly and those who spend a long time outside working or playing sports are particularly susceptible. Sun stroke occurs when the body is exposed to extreme heat or humidity and cannot dissipate the heat through the skin or by sweating. The body temperature rises as a result. Another cause is severe dehydration.
According to data from the Japan Meteorological Agency, average air temperatures nationwide have risen by the equivalent of 1.15 degrees Celsius over the past century. (The global average was 0.74 degrees.) Things are only going to get hotter from here on, it seems.
Dr. Joe Kurosu, a Tokyo-based bilingual general practitioner who trained in the U.S., had this to say about the problem.
“My impression is that heat-related illness has become somewhat over-hyped in Japan these past few years. During the summer we see many patients, often with very minor symptoms, worried about heat stroke, most of whom do not have it or anything close to it. I think this is in part due to this hyper-awareness.
“I do believe there is still some degree of the ‘You need to suck it up’ attitude, but I do not feel this is any different than that seen with, for example, football practice in grueling heat in the U.S.,” says Kurosu.
I called the reader’s local board of education in Tokyo, but as the Concerned Mum didn’t want her daughter’s school’s name mentioned, the person I spoke to couldn’t comment on the specifics of the case, and it was unclear if he had heard about the parents’ complaint. In any case, privacy issues would probably have prevented him from divulging specific information.
“I’m sorry to hear of this family’s problems. We do regard the issue of heat stroke among children as a serious issue, and every year we give out promotional materials to schools, highlighting the risks,” he said. “However, it is basically up to each school to handle things.”
According to education ministry data, between 4,000 and 5,000 schoolchildren suffer from heat stroke each year, with the majority being junior or senior high school students. This is possibly due to the propensity for many in this age group to engage in rigorous daily training outdoors for bukatsu school clubs. (This data covers all children, from babies to 18-year-olds, that suffered heat stroke at schools, kindergarten or day care centers, and for whom medical care costs were claimed under the school medical insurance system.)
For more specifics on the efforts being made to educate schools, I called the agency that produces and disseminates information about heat stroke. This is the Japan Sport Council (Nihon Supotsu Shinko Senta), and a representative from their School Safety Division was happy to explain in more detail.
“We produce pamphlets and posters, educating about the issues with heat stroke, and these are sent out to boards of education nationwide before the weather heats up — typically by early June. The BOEs would then pass these on to the schools under their jurisdiction,” he said.
“If the outside temperature is expected to rise above 31 degrees, we issue advisories that students refrain from going outside as much as possible. In terms of preventing heat stroke, we advise schools to ensure that students have access to adequate fluids, rest in shaded areas and protective clothing.” (In other words, the things that the reader’s daughter was denied on the occasions she had heat stroke.)
The Japan Sport Council representative admitted that it was difficult to monitor how well each area of Japan was doing in terms of disseminating the information, but he noted that the Japan Sports Center is willing to conduct seminars and training sessions for teachers. Again, these events are arranged through each BOE.
At the end of the day, it would seem that the best bet for our reader is to pursue the issue through her board of education, and suggest that they enlist help from the Japan Sports Center to ensure the local teachers are better informed.
Kiwi Louise George Kittaka has been based in Japan since she was 20. In the ensuing years she has survived PTA duty for three kids in the Japanese education system and singing live on national TV for NHK’s “Nodo Jiman” show, among other things. Send your comments and questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.