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Friday, Aug. 30, 2002

MATTER OF COURSE

AIR PROS AND CONS

Staying cool at school becomes a hot topic


It sure is hot in Japan. My kids had to sweat through weeks of heat before they were finally released for summer vacation in the third week of July. They go back to school next Monday, and I feel sorry for them. It's likely to be hot and humid for a few more weeks.

The classrooms at the elementary school my kids attend aren't air-conditioned. This is typical of public schools in Japan, although most private schools now have air conditioning. In my older son's classroom, on the top floor of the school, the temperature stays above 30 degrees for most of the summer. Sometimes it hits 36 degrees. I didn't get alarmed when I first heard those numbers because I'm American and can't think in Celsius. But when I did the math, I realized my babies are baking in classrooms that hit 97 degrees Fahrenheit.

I worry my kids aren't learning when school is so hot. And such high temperatures aren't healthy for children, who are more vulnerable to heat than adults are.

Most days in summer, my boys come home from school covered in sweat. My younger son gets a heat rash on the back of his knees. But I'm glad they haven't suffered anything worse. Some children get heat stroke or dehydration. They go to the school clinic, where the health teacher gives them water and lets them rest in the air conditioning.

"Schools aren't given guidance about what to do on really hot days, the health teacher told me. Theoretically, each school has the authority to close, or send kids home early. But I've never heard of that happening.

Even if students don't get sick, concentration suffers when classrooms get too hot. "The summer heat makes it difficult for children to study effectively," one of my sons' teachers told me. "There's not much we can do."

Do I think schools in Japan should be air-conditioned? Of course I do. I thought everybody else thought so, too. Not so, I've discovered. Some people get very hot under the collar on the topic of air-conditioned schools. I got a taste of this recently when I sat in on a meeting of an advisory panel to our ward's board of education. The topic had nothing to do with air conditioning, but as soon as the meeting was adjourned, two members of the audience jumped up to protest air-conditioned schools. Anyone who thinks Japanese are always polite and unemotional should observe citizens exercising their right to free speech.

"I'm absolutely opposed to air conditioners in schools!" shouted one of the men, who appeared to be in his 40s. "It's healthy to sweat in the summer." The advisory panel edged toward the door, making excuses about having other appointments.

Then the protesters turned on a representative of a teachers' union who happened to be there. "You teachers say kids need air conditioning to study, but you just want it for your own comfort," accused the other man, who was about 70. The teacher responded calmly. Nearly all Japanese homes now have air conditioning, he explained, so children can't adjust to the hot conditions at school. "Schools shouldn't bend to the home!" one of the critics raged. "Tell their parents to open the windows! The reason Tokyo's gotten so hot is people like you run their damn air conditioners all the time!"

Well, yes, I thought. But Tokyo's also hotter because of all the cars and trucks. And too much concrete. And the lack of trees. All those factors contribute to the "heat-island effect" that has raised the average temperature in Tokyo between July and September by 1.2 degrees over the past 20 years. Meteorologists consider that a significant and worrisome jump.

It's not just Tokyo that is suffering from the heat-island effect. In Sendai, for example, the number of days per year when the temperature exceeded 30 degrees has tripled in the last two decades. In Nagoya, like Tokyo, the number of days per year over 30 degrees has doubled, compared with 20 years ago.

Our local government is "studying" the issue, but it hasn't made a commitment to install air conditioners in classrooms, even when new schools are built. Interestingly, there is one elementary school in our ward that is air-conditioned, but that wasn't paid for with public funds. A construction company that wanted to put up a big building next to the school donated the air conditioners, presumably to ward off opposition. Meanwhile, the teachers' union has petitioned for air-conditioning in every school in our ward. PTAs are pushing for it, too. Our board of education says it's just a matter of finding the money.

But I wonder. I've noticed a lot of ambivalence about air conditioning in Japan. Almost everyone has it, both at home and at work. But some folks boast about turning it off at night to sweat. A lot of people worry about reibobyo (air-conditioning sickness) and believe you get ill if you're too cool in the summer.

In a recent magazine article, a school board official in another ward said that if he had kids, he wouldn't send them to air-conditioned schools. "You have to teach kids that summer is hot," he was quoted as saying. Many adults also hang on to the old-fashioned idea that it's good for kids to learn to endure discomfort; that it toughens kids up to sit in classrooms that are too cold in winter and too hot in summer.

But the reality is that Japanese cities have become a lot hotter. Adults simply can't compare their own school days to what kids are experiencing at school today. And given the current concerns about declining academic ability, it makes sense to provide favorable conditions for learning.

We may not like living in air conditioning all summer, but it's become a necessity for us. Until we take steps to bring down the temperatures in cities, classrooms should be air-conditioned. May cooler heads prevail.

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


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