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Friday, Aug. 10, 2001



Swimming is serious at elementary schools

It's officially summer vacation for Japanese schoolchildren, but most schools are still open for lessons. Swimming lessons, that is.

Nearly every public elementary school in Japan has an outdoor pool (except in colder parts of Hokkaido), and swimming is a standard part of the physical education curriculum. The goal is to teach children to swim so they can enjoy water sports and be safe in and near water.

Just before swim instruction starts, usually in early June, schools send home detailed handouts outlining both parental and student responsibilities for maintaining a safe and healthy pool. The rules are far stricter than anything I've seen in other countries.

At our school, students change into their swimsuits in classrooms, boys in one, girls in another. Everyone must wear a regulation swimsuit and bathing cap marked in large letters with their name and class. After changing, the kids move to the pool area to warm up and stretch with a set of exercises called junbi taiso.

This habit becomes so ingrained that it's easy at overseas pools to tell who is Japanese: They are usually the only ones who bother to stretch before a swim.

Once the kids have limbered up, they take a shower and walk through the koshi-arai, a hip-deep dip of disinfecting solution. I thought this sanitation measure was a bit extreme, but I've since heard that other schools require children to submerge themselves up to the neck in disinfectant. Anyone who leaves the water to use the toilet must go back through the koshi-arai before re-entering the pool.

The rules go beyond sanitation. Every morning on days when swimming is scheduled, parents must take the child's temperature, record it on the official swim card and stamp the card with a hanko (personal seal) to certify that the child is healthy and able to swim that day. Any child who comes to school without a properly completed pool card is not allowed to swim.

Is it really necessary to have parents certify their child's body temperature? To me, it seems obvious that a child with a fever shouldn't be sent to school, let alone to a swim lesson. Our mornings are hectic enough without having to hunt for the thermometer and take everyone's temperature.

So I felt no qualms about simplifying the assignment. I just placed my palm on each kid's forehead. As long as it felt cool, I ruled him healthy and stamped the pool card.

I was sure other parents did this, too. But when I started asking around, I discovered that Japanese mothers take temperature checks seriously, as do their kids.

One friend told me her fourth-grade daughter takes her temperature herself, writes down her body temperature and brings the form over so her mother can stamp it.

Humbled, I gave the issue another thought. I realized that the school is not only trying to keep sick kids out of the pool. The other purpose of the temperature check is to teach children to pay attention to how they feel before starting to exercise.

But, like the other participation requirements, it is still a hurdle. If they can get over all these hurdles and actually get in the pool, Japanese schoolchildren get roughly eight to 12 hours of swimming instruction during the school year, depending on weather and class schedules.

In elementary schools, it is the classroom teachers who also teach swimming and all physical education. I love to see my fourth-grader's teacher transform herself for swim lessons: She wears baggy shorts over her suit and dons flip-flops and a big sun hat. Armed with a megaphone and assisted by two colleagues, she manages to keep 60 10-year-olds under control long enough to actually teach some swimming skills.

When children master a basic skill, such as putting their heads under water or swimming 15 meters, their pool cards are stamped and they gain a rank. At our school, there are 15 different ranks. Breaking down the process of learning to swim into many separate skills makes it feel more manageable and keeps the students motivated to reach the next level.

Unfortunately for lazy mothers like me, nearly every rise in rank creates another sewing task. I had to sew four strips of red cord onto my first-grader's swim cap to show he can swim 15 meters. Then he passed the 25-meter test and was promoted to amenbo (water strider). He came home proudly with a badge for me to sew onto his suit.

After school lets out for the summer in mid-July, students may still come to the school pool for optional swim lessons. Since it is free and you don't have to come every day, most families sign up.

Schools open the pool for about 15 to 20 days each summer, usually with half of the days clustered right after school lets out in mid-July and the other half in late August, just before school reopens. Called puru kaiho, this open-pool policy is especially welcome in our neighbor- hood in central Tokyo, where there are few good places to play outside in summer. The public pools are a bit far and tend to get very crowded. I'd love to join my kids for a dip, but like most school pools, ours is not open to parents, younger siblings or neighborhood children who are not registered at the school.

This is largely for health reasons: Every student who uses the pool has undergone a health exam at school, including a test for pinworms, which are easily transmitted when children change clothes together.

I'm grateful for the summer vacation swimming instruction because the daily lessons have helped develop my kids' swimming ability. My sewing skills are coming along, too.

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

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