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Sunday, Sep. 4, 2011

BIG IN JAPAN

These may be interesting times, yet we yearn to return to normality


"May you live in interesting times," goes the familiar curse — or as the Chinese say in a similar vein, "It's better to be a dog in times of peace than a human in times of chaos."

Unquestionably these are interesting times. It's not war, but somehow it's not peace either. Is chaos too strong a word? The weekly magazine Friday tells this story: A teacher in a girls' junior high school in Minamisoma, Fukushima Prefecture, 25 km from the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power plant, handed out a questionnaire which asked: "Do you want to get married? How many children do you intend to have?"

The students were surprised, but, as Friday says, the real shock was yet to come. After collecting the papers the teacher faced his class and said, "If possible you'd better not marry or have children." One girl burst out, "Teacher, why are you saying such things?" "Do you seriously think," the teacher shot back, "that you'll be able to lead normal lives?"

Teachers across Fukushima seem to be cracking under the strain. Can we blame them? Of course we can. They have responsibilities toward very young people, and must fulfill them, even if a gutted nuclear power plant on their doorstep is as vivid a symbol of death and destruction as peacetime is likely to produce.

"The government has forsaken us!" Friday quotes one teacher as crying out in class. And another: "It's physically impossible for the government to turn us all into refugees, so they tell us certain levels of radiation are OK. The point is, we're guinea pigs. All of you are radiation guinea pigs."

How do children react to teachers visibly buckling in despair? "Everybody was pretty depressed," the magazine hears from one girl — "saying stuff like, 'It's true, we'll never be able to marry, will we?' or, 'No man'll want a wife from Fukushima.'"

It's a bitter reality children in Fukushima are living. Ideally teachers and parents should shield them from the worst of it, not rub their noses in it. To its credit, Friday speaks to the teachers too and presents their side of the story.

Part of the problem is their sharply increased workload. Some schools were destroyed; class sizes in those remaining have as much as doubled. There is decontamination work to do. There is the constant strain of dealing with traumatized kids, emotionally ravaged by what they've been through.

What should teachers tell their students? Nobody seems to know. "I told my class, 'Fukushima is not safe. Close the windows, wear masks,' " says one senior high school teacher. "The principle criticized me; he said, 'Don't talk like that, don't make the students uneasy.' It's rather odd, not being allowed to urge kids to take safety precautions."

"It's a bad joke," says another, more bluntly. "There's no guidance from anywhere as to what we should be telling the kids. No wonder teachers are getting strange."

Is it just teachers? Maybe it's all of us. Maybe "strange" is the word that best fits the times. Ask children and teenagers what they most yearn for, and the answer turns out to be normality. That is strange. Youth is a time for disdaining normality and craving ... well, strangeness — the fantastic, the impractical, whatever mocks convention and flies in the face of common sense. Not that that has been banished from their minds, but it's channeled into manga and anime. When real life itself turns into a kind of anime, solid ground beneath one's feet suddenly seems worth having.

What is the authority for these sweeping statements? A poll originally published by the boys' magazine Shukan Shonen, reproduced and discussed by the Asahi Shimbun in July. The survey asked 754 boys aged 12-18 about their future goals. Marriage came first, a job second, adventure third.

This is not boyish thinking — is it? Marriage? A job? It is youth's privilege to either take those things for granted or dismiss them as unimportant. Why aren't they availing themselves of that privilege? Because the instability of their surroundings frightens them? Note, incidentally, that marriage here is not synonymous with love, which ranks fourth in importance behind adventure; nor does a job mean starting one's own enterprise (fifth) or getting ahead in the world (sixth). The thinking is unabashedly prosaic.

"A job is important because it gives you a living," says a 14-year-old boy — a self-confessed anime freak. "And if you have a job with a good company, it's easy to get married." Why does he want to get married? "Being alone all your life is sad, isn't it? Anyway, I'm not much good at cleaning up after myself. Living alone wouldn't be easy."

"Interesting times" hardly began on March 11. Back in January the Asahi ran another article on teenagers, this one discussing a partiality they were showing to, of all things, masks. Not colorful masks or sinister masks or expressive masks but the humble, standard-issue white hayfever mask that fits over the mouth and nose. They wear them, the article said, not against pollen or germs but simply as part of their daily attire. Reasons given vary. "I have complexes about my face — with my mask on you don't notice how small my eyes are," said a 14-year-old girl. Another: "If the teacher gets mad at me and I have my mask on it doesn't bother me. Without the mask, it hurts."

Is that the whole story, or merely what the kids can or want to tell us, the lines we must read between if we're to know what's going on? Is there something in the air that adults don't know about but teenagers do? Not microbes, not radiation, but something else?

"Interesting times" indeed. They'll get more interesting yet.



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