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Friday, June 14, 2002

MATTER OF COURSE

FOOTBALL FALLOUT

Furigan fears prompt school safety drills


Journalists who write columns love to tie up their topics with current events. Still, I never thought I'd write about the World Cup soccer finals. I don't follow the sport, and I didn't see any connection between my education column and the international tournament. Until I saw the handout my kids brought home from school. Among the crumpled math papers and school lunch menus in my sons' backpacks was a letter to parents from the assistant principal. Dated just before the World Cup kickoff, the letter described the emergency procedures to be used if soccer riots broke out and asked for our cooperation in keeping the children safe from furigan (hooligans).

My first reaction was disbelief. Sure, I was aware of rising hysteria about the invasion by soccer barbarians of these peaceful shores, but I hadn't expected to hear from the school about hooligans. Our school is in Tokyo. The World Cup matches are in other cities. Surely our students were safe. Weren't they?

Here's what the handout said: We should warn our kids about hooligans and tell them to run to safety if they encounter rowdies. If we observe disturbances before school, we should keep our kids home and notify the school by telephone. The school would inform the board of education.

The handout reminded us to keep our renrakumo handy throughout the World Cup games. This is a chart, standard in all Japanese schools, showing who calls whom when the school needs to spread information quickly to parents. I have one renrakumo for each child's class. The one for my second-grader diagrams that the school will call two parents, one of whom is me. The two of us will each call three other parents. Each of those parents will call one more parent on the list, until the message is passed to every child's family. The last person in each group calls the parent at the top of the chart to confirm that everyone has been informed.

American schools don't have this system for emergency communication. When we were living in the United States, my sons' school had to be evacuated once because of suspicious fumes. Several staff members stayed behind, manning the telephones to inform the parents of the school's 300 students. It took hours. Our school here in Japan, using parents to make the calls in a predetermined pattern, can spread emergency information to the households of all 300 students in as little as 10 minutes. If soccer riots were to break out, school officials could communicate quickly the decision to cancel school or delay the start time.

After checking to make sure both renrakumo were by the telephone, I investigated how other schools responded to the threat of World Cup hooliganism.

Not all schools in our ward issued hooligan handouts, just those close to Roppongi, the entertainment district where crowds of foreign soccer fans were expected to gather. This made sense: Even on non-World Cup mornings, kids on their way to school sometimes pass Roppongi patrons stumbling home after a night of heavy drinking.

A private girls' school in Tokyo warned about possible hooliganism on the Nanboku subway line, which crowds of soccer fans were expected to use to get to matches in Saitama. The school asked parents of children who commute on that line to pick up their children from school on match days. This is an unusual request in Japan, where most children, age 6 and up, commute to and from school on their own. And many students at this school live over an hour away.

The greatest debate about hooligan countermeasures took place at schools located near World Cup venues. The school closest to Sapporo Dome considered all sorts of measures but settled on sending the children home in organized groups. Another Sapporo school gave each student a bohan beru (personal anti-crime alarm).

Schools near Miyagi Stadium couldn't decide what to do about first-graders, who normally head home at 1:50 p.m. Releasing them at the regular time would send them out into the pre-game crowds, so the school considered keeping them at school with the older students until after the match started at half past 3. Another plan was to send them home in groups. School officials held off on the decision until after the first local match, on a Sunday, to see how fans behaved.

In Osaka, schools near Nagai Stadium planned to release students early so that the children wouldn't walk home through crowds of soccer fans waiting for the afternoon Nigeria vs. England match held on Wednesday. A few schools planned to close completely.

Close schools? Was this another example of Japanese anti-hooligan overkill? Like the huge investment in net-casting guns to subdue rioting fans. Or like the politician who told the nation to "brace against unwanted babies being conceived by foreigners who rape our women."

I wasn't sure at first, but decided it's not. Hooliganism is a real problem. Other countries have closed schools because of soccer. For example, when German and Dutch teams met in Dusseldorf in 1999, schools closed because of the threat of hooliganism. But it makes me uncomfortable that schoolchildren are being warned that foreigners could become violent. Kids don't know what a hooligan looks like. So they get nervous every time they pass any foreigner. Not the way to encourage internationalism in Japan.

Fortunately, our school tried to strike a balance. The letter from the assistant principal stated that the World Cup was an excellent opportunity to promote international understanding and exchange. It stressed that only a minority of overseas soccer fans cause trouble. In the classrooms, our teachers used the World Cup to teach kids about other countries. Even the kitchen staff got in on the act: The day the games opened in Seoul, the school lunch was Korean food.

Good crisis management means having a plan and hoping you never have to use it. I don't think our school overreacted; it had a plan in place and communicated it to everyone. No hooligan problems after all? In that case, school will continue as normal.

That's better than dropping the ball, especially when it comes to children's safety.

Alice Gordenker is a Tokyo-based writer and the mother of two American children attending Japanese public elementary school.


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