Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The End of April

(Disclaimer [and note to the censors]: All details included in this post have already appeared in newspapers.)

April means so many things both here in the Land of the Rising Sun and at Ye Olde Academy. It is the start of the fiscal year. It is the start of the school year. It is a time of quick growth and even quicker change.

It is the time when children make their entry into this sprawling garden of dreams and futures. When they arrive they are nervous and doe-eyed, their uniforms often ill-fitting and awkward. They are filled with uncertainty but also with hope. Just getting in was a monumental hurdle to surmount. Now that they are here, they have to figure out the new reality, and it isn't always as easy as their cram school notes. They often grope about as if in the dark, trying not to get lost in the sometimes-spooky maze of corridors and stairways. Their homeroom teachers soon become their most trusted guides, like beacons in the fog, giving them direction, helping them to understand that there is a Way of Things here as everywhere else, providing a welcome familiar face at least twice a day.

As the days go on, and the sakura start to blow away, the real experiences begin. Classes at Ye Olde Academy are nothing like what they've had before. All that moving around exposes them both to the beauty of the campus and its intimidating size (especially for rookies). The pace and the level of the lessons is sometimes more than they expect, and they soon learn they have to jump onto the moving train or else wind up being dragged along behind it. They learn that they have to get accustomed to the face of not just one teacher, but of several. It can be unsettling, but the homeroom teacher is always there again to reassure at the end of the day.

The older students also do their best to welcome their new schoolmates, making new friends, inviting new recruits into the various clubs, and, perhaps most significantly of all, helping them prepare for the Sports Festival.

The Sports Festival is particularly important. Most schools hold theirs later in the year, but at Ye Olde Academy it is always at the end of April. Thus it serves as the last initiation ceremony for the new 7th graders, finalizing their induction into the school. By training, preparing, and competing together with their seniors, the new students show their worthiness to be part of the team. As the month progresses, each week heralded by a new barrage of blooms, the intensity increases. As the preparation nears its completion, the training becomes both more organized and more intense. The excitement builds exponentially, and as the final week arrives, it becomes harder and harder to rein in the kids enough to get them to sit through a serious lesson. They can hear the sports ground calling to them, and they can't wait to get outside and practice with their new classmates again. They are eager to expend the energy they've built up during the day. Surrounded by anticipation and youthful exuberance, they find it harder even to sit and wait their turn. It is time to play. It is time to run.

Thus it was when the junior high students finished their classes on a warm, sunny Thursday and immediately headed out to the sports ground. The senior high students had one more period left to go, so those on the field waited for them impatiently. There were several teachers on duty at the time, but with several hundred anxious, excited bodies running around, it was impossible to keep track of them all.

No doubt no one saw the three 7th grade boys separate from the bulk of the students and chase each other in the shadows behind the stands. No one saw one of the boys, no doubt laughing with excitement, climb up the stairs to the flag platform in a vain attempt to shake his pursuers. As he backed up, facing his friends, no doubt the ledge behind him was the last thing on his mind. The distance he fell was 155cm (5 feet).

When the others saw and ran to him, he was still conscious and had no visible sign of injury. However, he was not responding to questions, so he was put on a spine board and an ambulance was called. Three different emergency hospitals said their ICUs weren't available and refused to accept him before, fully half an hour later, a fourth hospital reluctantly agreed to take him in as a last resort. A specialist was apparently brought in by helicopter. The prognosis was that the boy had a fractured skull and a contusion, but it didn't appear particularly serious. Two days later he was in a deep coma, and the doctors say it doesn't look good.

It is virtually impossible to anticipate something like this. It is even harder to try to prevent it from happening. Sometimes probability works against us. Sometimes freak accidents simply occur. The problem is that, when they do, people tend to lose all sense of reality. The soul-searching and the irrational accusations go into overdrive. The family, understandably pained by the situation (made even more complicated by existing issues of their own), goes manic and does its best to make things even more difficult. The news media drools as it digs in and shouts the name of our school and principal to the masses and trumpets to the world how negligently evil we are. People say, "Where were the teachers?" as if we could possibly see every student in every place at all times. People say, "Why didn't they take precautions against this?" as if we could foresee every possible incident with at least a 0.001 percent chance of occurrence and somehow prevent it. People say, "Why didn't they keep the students under control?" as if we had the ability or reason to take 500+ junior high students by the hand and lead them everywhere, even during their free times. Unfortunately, we are generally required to do the impossible, and when the impossible bites us, we're painfully reminded of how inadequate we are. What's even sadder is the fact that the brunt of the blame has to be borne by the kid's homeroom teacher, who had absolutely nothing to do with the incident whatsoever.

What's even worse is that I'm his assistant homeroom teacher. The loyalty and concern of the other students has been both touching and heartbreaking. I helped them fold a thousand (actually more than that) paper cranes, a Japanese "get well" tradition. They've still only just entered the school, and this has turned out to be a very rude welcome.

Mourning Lessons 1
The view in my classroom last Saturday. The first thousand paper cranes we completed were strung together in traditional fashion (seen hung on the blackboard). The remainder (on the floor at bottom left) were sorted and later placed into a bag.

There is no joy in Ye Olde Academy. The Sports Festival has been canceled. The flow has been disrupted. There is sorrow everywhere. April has been prematurely aborted.


  • MM, what a terrible shame. For the poor homeroom teacher, for the other students, for the other parents who may be feeling anxiety for no good reason.

    By Anonymous nikkipolani, at 3:36 AM  

  • Bummer...what's with hospitals refusing patients? I thought that only happened to people who didn't have health ins/can't pay (well, in "capitalist crony" US of A-regardless of all the rightwingers claims of illegal immigrants flooding our ERs-ok end of rant).

    Could quicker treatment have prevented the onset of the coma?

    Seems like all cultures like to play the blame game though...sorry about your co-worker...

    By Blogger ladybug, at 4:52 AM  

  • I hope the youngster can find his way back to health. I feel so bad for all of you.

    Best wishes.

    By Blogger Don Snabulus, at 6:11 AM  

  • What turned out to be another festive year at Hogwarts gone awry. Pity it began this way.

    By Anonymous Dave, at 9:16 AM  

  • What a way to start the new year. So sad. Hope the boy recovers. Best wishes to all.

    By Blogger HappySurfer, at 1:13 PM  

  • PS My thoughts are with this poor boy's friends and family as well.

    My earlier comment was kind of related to what happened to Natasha Richardson (the actress), who hit her head while skiing, refused initial treatment and then lapsed into a coma later...

    By Blogger ladybug, at 2:32 PM  

  • Thanks for all the good wishes. I'd pass them on if I could, but because of certain complicated issues involved I have been ordered to stay away, i.e. no going to the hospital to offer my best wishes.

    Emergency hospitals refusing patients has become a serious problem here. This is the first such incident I've heard of in our area (though apparently it's more common than I thought), but in big cities like Tokyo it's almost par for the course.

    One problem is the fact that so many people go to the emergency wings at hospitals because it's the only way to get in outside of regular hours. You wind up with the system getting clogged up by people with little owies on their knees. Another problem is that there is currently a chronic shortage of doctors nationwide (which they say is partly due to vastly shrinking enrollment in medical school due to declining performance and motivation among young people). Ironically, it has been suggested that there are perhaps too many hospitals in the big cities, meaning they suck up the available pool and leave little left over for more remote locations. Finally, laws regulating working conditions for nurses were massively tightened up during the past decade. They really did need to be revised since there was a lot of abuse, but they went overboard. Now it's extremely hard for emergency hospitals to keep a viable staff on duty at all times.

    Most of the time patients in ambulances are refused because there isn't currently an adequate doctor and/or nursing staff on hand to take care of him at that particular hospital. In this case, the first emergency hospital they tried to go to, which is very near the school and intended to support Kashima Soccer Stadium, refused on the grounds that the doctor on duty wasn't qualified to treat head injuries. They then tried to take him to a hospital in Kamisu, but it said its ICU wasn't available. Something similar was said by the big emergency hospital over in Hasaki. The massive Red Cross hospital down in Narita said the same thing but offered to fly a doctor up to another hospital if necessary. That's why they finally brought him to the hospital near where I live (which agreed to take him only as a last resort).

    Cases like this are becoming more and more common, and they've already had several people die in Tokyo while being shuttled around looking for an available hospital.

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 8:21 PM  

  • Try not to think of earthquakes.

    By Anonymous Dave, at 7:40 AM  

  • Well, Dave, it's a well-known (and often bemoaned) fact that, when the Great Hanshin Earthquake hit Kobe in 1995, though the medical teams were prepared and ready to go, they wound up getting tied up while the bureaucracy formed committees to debate on procedure. Meanwhile, the yakuza (Japanese mafia) leapt into action, organized relief efforts, established security to prevent looting, directed traffic, and all in all handled the situation a lot better than the government.

    What does that tell you?

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 9:39 AM  

  • Moody-What about triage?

    If someone comes in w/a serious injury, they jump ahead of everyone else (which is why the ER can take so least here) - especially if it's a kid.

    Just wondering if that's a cultural thing (i.e. nobody wants to make a decision on who to treat first) or what...also, health careers are taking off in the US. It's pretty much a guaranteed job for life if you are an R.N. or Dr....(teaching for those careers as well!).

    With the economic climate, will that provide the incentive needed to have young people in Japan choose the medical profession as a career?

    By Blogger ladybug, at 9:56 AM  

  • Ladybug-
    They do that here too. When I went to an emergency hospital with a kidney stone I was made to wait more than an hour while they treated more urgent cases (though they did give me a pain killer at least).

    The problem is that there are apparently new rules about the load nursing staff has to bear. If the available ICUs are occupied, and relevant staff committed, no new patients are accepted. It didn't use to be that way, and that's why these ambulance denial cases are mounting rapidly.

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 11:44 AM  

  • What an awful tragedy for all concerned. K heard it was a death - such is the rumor mill. I hope for his recovery and comfort and peace of mind for all affected - family, fellow students, and teachers, including yourself.

    By Blogger Pandabonium, at 8:23 PM  

  • pandaboniumConsidering the boy's condition last I heard, it almost might as well be death.

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 9:21 PM  


    The doctors are saying that it appears the boy is near if not at the point of brain death, and that only a miracle can save him now. Even if he survives he may very well spend the rest of his life as a vegetable. He's still on life support, and a decision has yet to be made whether to pull the plug.

    Last night the school called all the parents in (plus press representatives) so the principal could make an official statement, give a thorough explanation, and answer questions.

    Fortunately, the reaction from most if not all of the parents was one of overwhelming support, which was pretty moving. There were only a couple of idiot comments (though I shan't elaborate).

    The principal did point out one surprising and ominous item that he hadn't mentioned before, however. After their lengthy investigation, the police are satisfied that it was an accident. However, the doctors are not. The boy fell a distance of 155cm onto a flat, cement surface, but the wound was concave, which would seem to indicate he was hit with something, perhaps before he fell. So was it an accident or something else? There's no way to know for sure, since eyewitnesses are few in number and of dubious impartiality. We'll probably never know the truth.

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 11:58 AM  

  • I'm sorry to hear that the boy passed away. It's such a tragedy. But it was an accident and no one is to blame for what happened. It will take some time and it will be difficult but I hope you'll get through this.
    Take care, ok?

    By Anonymous Ă…nGe|e, at 2:47 AM  

  • Thanks, AnGele.

    My wife got an e-mail yesterday saying the boy had died, but it turned out to be only a rumor. He's still hanging on, but in a coma and relying on life support.

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 7:47 PM  

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