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Sunday, April 18, 1999


In Japan, if it can be done, it can be certified

Be honest, how many certificates do you have? Count them all -- in your desk drawer, on the wall, in the ashes in the incinerator.

If you're American, its possible to live your entire life having received only one certificate -- your birth certificate. Only when you die is it considered a big enough event to give you another certificate.

Since I came to Japan, however, I have accumulated a drawer full of certificates: for karate, for Japanese language courses, for breathing, and the most recent one, for participating in orienteering.

Orienteering is an outdoor event where you drink a lot of beer and run around searching for points. Points, which are actually flags, can be found in the forest, on top of mountains or between boulders. I participated in orienteering for the first time last weekend at the 18th annual orienteering event on Shiraishi Island.

At the starting line, my husband and I were given numbers to wear, a map and a compass. One of the staff members said, "Do you know how to use a compass?"

I laughed. After all, I had been a Girl Scout in my childhood. To prove it, I held up my three middle fingers and said: "On my honor, I will try: to serve God and my country, to help people at all times, and to live by the Girl Scout Law." (Don't ask me what the Girl Scout Law is). "Not only that," I said, "I can tie a bowline knot, weave a basket and distinguish rabbits from hares."

I was awarded the compass, which I put in my knapsack with the other provisions: a canteen of water so we wouldn't dehydrate out on the trail, trail mix in case we got lost and needed food, matches and kindling in case we needed a campfire to send smoke signals, and a first-aid kit in case of any life-threatening situation. As we crossed the starting line, I felt a little guilty for having forgotten to bring my "Field Guide to Insects."

If you were ever a Boy Scout or Girl Scout, you've probably always wondered if your scout knowledge would come in handy some day. You probably even once said to your mother, "Do I have to learn all this stuff?" To which she said, "Someday when you find yourself in an emergency situation, you'll be glad." "Really?" you said, and imagined God up there in the sky dreaming up life-threatening situations for your future.

As a Scout, you were prepared for -- even looked forward to -- the day you would be lost in the wilderness and forced to live off the land surviving solely on your scouting abilities.

But I don't think those scouting abilities would get you very far in today's world. In Japan, it's so crowded you can't even hope to get lost in the wilderness and be forced to live off the land. But maybe the scouts have modernized since I was a kid. Since the purpose of scouting is to help kids develop the skills needed to survive, maybe the scouts have new programs such as city camping, a skill kids may need if they lose their jobs some day. Or perhaps they drop off kids in the middle of Tokyo with only 5,000 yen for the weekend.

My husband and I had collected all the points and crossed the finish line within a couple of hours. During that time, we were never in any danger of dehydrating and we didn't eat the trail mix. We didn't need the matches and kindling to send smoke signals, nor did we need the first-aid kit. It's a good thing I hadn't brought along the "Field Guide to Insects."

There was an orienteering awards ceremony later, with prizes. I don't know what the person received for coming in first, but for coming in last we received certificates. We would have made it across the finish line a lot faster if we could have figured out how to use that darn compass!

E-mail your comments and questions to: amychavez@mailexcite.com

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