Category Archives: Other News

Corona Care

Tuesday, April 7th, 2020

Today it was announced that the English school I work for would close until May 7th. This was in light of the circumstances which are rapidly approaching what we most feared: that the new coronavirus would begin spreading more and more rapidly in Japan as it has in other countries.

The decision is probably in everyone’s best interest, but we already closed down for two weeks in March, a decision that was carefully considered by our bosses. It was to be done in a way that would not cost the school by having to pay back tuition fees thus insuring that there would be money to pay teachers at the same time guaranteeing students classes would be made up. Now we need to consider a reality where it will be more difficult to cover missed classes and worse, one where teachers are going to have to accept a salary of only 60% of what they – we, I – had been used to. That will be difficult for those of us who have been just barely squeaking by under the usual circumstances.

The rise of infection cases had been very slow. When the virus first began spreading in China, it was on the cusp of the Chinese New Year holiday. Suddenly, reports were out about this new threat but too late to stop holiday travelers from coming over to Japan where they then bought boxes and boxes of masks. In a short time, Japan was the number two infected country. This changed quickly when a super spreader in Korea caused a rapid escalation in infected cases. The Korean government acted swiftly in response and managed to keep the death toll remarkably low.

Then came Italy and Iran, Europe, North America. Across the globe, the virus was spreading and the death rate climbing. But not in Japan. Some people speculated that the number of cases was low because the government wasn’t adamantly testing en mass. The Olympic Games were at stake and the government did not want to have to cancel after all the money and hope that had been invested. But even after a few weeks had passed and the Games postponed, the rate of infection remained surprisingly low. If there had been so many carriers of the virus, the death rate would surely be increasing by now.

Some pointed out that Japan experiences influenza season from November to February every winter season and so already practices to prevent or at least inhibit the spread of flu viruses was already in practice. Japanese wear masks, wash hands, sterilize and sanitize surfaces, make little physical contact, and stay home when ill in most cases. Perhaps that’s one reason why Covid-19 was not infecting people by the hundreds daily. In March, schools and theme parks closed, events were cancelled, and alcohol wipes, gel, and sprays sold out everywhere. So did toilet paper because a rumour spread that toilet paper was produced in China where factories were standing idle. It was in fact nearly all produced in Japan.

Then came the first cherry blossoms and with them the Japanese tradition of gathering in parks and sitting under the blossoms while eating and partying. New cases of infected people began appearing more than before. People were requested to stay home on the weekend of March 28 and 29. Mother nature helped out by dumping snow around the Greater Tokyo area. Bread and pasta sold out in the stores the night before.

But there was no stopping the rise. Sixty people infected, seventy-two people infected, 80, 100, 120… Each day the number of infected people was higher than the day before. I quick look at America’s situation told the government that something had to be done and soon. And at last, we have begun a state of emergency that gives the prime minister certain authorities where his decisions can save lives. But unlike other countries where the rules can be enforced with varying degrees of severity, the Japanese constitution doesn’t permit the government to use force of any kind on the public. Requests can be made. Companies and individuals can choose to hunker down and follow the requests or to go their own way and risk not only their own lives but the lives of all the people around them.

Until now it hasn’t been easy to comply. Basically, people need to work. They commute to work usually riding trains that become increasingly crowded as they approach downtown. At least for the sake of earning a pay cheque and putting food on the table, people go to work. Many companies have asked their employees to work from home or to begin work later and stay later in an effort to thin the rush hour crowds somewhat. Teleconferencing has replaced business trips. But there is still one great weakness and that is people’s desire to get on with their ordinary lives. Especially young people are accused of going out and about, people who may be silent carriers. Then there has also been news about people who test positive but defy doctor’s orders to stay home.

Another problem has been all the air traffic coming in to Japan. Until recently, Japan still accepted flights from Europe and several other places. A German friend of mine told me his parents just walked off the plane and came to his house. He also said that five other friends arrived in Japan and went out around Tokyo. No testing. No quarantine. But the confirmed problems have been from Japanese nationals who returned from abroad, went home, and then showed symptoms of having caught the Covid-19 virus. One family was even tested at the airport, but then they took off to go home before the test results were in. They were positive.

Strangely, Japan has dealt with the viral outbreak so far in a split approach of closure and cleanliness versus lax rules about testing and quarantine. The rise in cases was sure to come, like a typhoon that churns over the ocean south of Kyushu, biding its time before rushing across the length of the archipelago and lashing out with savage gusts and torrential downpour.

From the end of February, my co-workers and I discussed buying extra food in case of a lockdown. We watched the world’s infection rates rise up and heard about the increasing death toll. In the good ol’ U S of A, President Trump denied repeatedly that there was anything to be concerned about in spite of what experts were telling him. Then suddenly there was a crisis and he quickly blamed Obama, denied having any responsibility, talked about his TV ratings, played golf, and then proceeded to snatch away masks bound for Germany. What a hero!

Tomorrow we will have a meeting about what to do and what can be done. Most importantly, how much can we expect to lose of our pay and how can the company survive the next month?

Then I will likely have many days of no work and it would be good to put my time to use. There’s so much to do I could spend eight hours a day for the whole month. There’s photo work, writing, cleaning up, organizing, cleaning out, video-making… But I have also a family to look after. The two weeks that my school was closed in March, I ended spending roughly six hours a day doing cooking, cleaning, shopping – all kitchen-related work! When I had an hour of free time, it was usually spent just keeping up with email, social media, and my turns on Words With Friends. I really must try harder to get constructive work done this time.

It’s late. It’s already very late. Tomorrow… er… today, morning brings a new future to my reality.

 

Raging River of Fear!

Oh, okay! Pardon me for being slightly hyperbolic. The title of this post was inspired by an old song by Captain Beyond. Nevertheless, a raging river it was.

I’m talking about Arakawa River (kawa actually means river so there’s not much point in stating the term “river” twice but it does sound better than “Ara River”).

After Typhoon Hagibis, or #19 as it was simply known in Japan, rivers across the country were swollen to the max and some burst their embankments or stormed out of their beds to wreck muddy, silty, soggy, soaking havoc on towns and rural villages. A friend of mine in Kawagoe, Saitama – one of the disaster zones – saw the water reach his parking space in front of his house before the rain most fortunately stopped and the waters receded. People on lower land across the street had indoor pools of brown water.

My neighborhood in Kumagaya City was not adversely affected. Water drained away properly and the tall trees by the shrine near my house remained upright with all major limbs intact. The following morning, the wind continued to blow but the sky was clear and fresh. I drove out to Aketo in the neighboring city of Fukaya, to a place where I have sometimes photographed Arakawa from a shelf of hard clay that spreads out along the river shore. Above this is a concrete slope with a walking path at the top and a concrete path lined with a railing following the river just a few meters above the waters’ surface.

The scene was vastly altered by the typhoon. Instead of the calm waters of the river gliding by, I saw a torrent of wild chocolate milk water throwing fits of foaming rage. The concrete path was under water in places and the railing was damaged in several places by trees and large branches that the river had cast violently into the railing. The river was bank to bank and swiftly thundering down its course. Sticks, branches, and lots of plastic refuse was piling up a few meters higher up the slope from the river, telling me that earlier the river had been up higher than where I was standing. All in all, an impressive sight that had me clicking away with my camera.

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A Contest

I haven’t entered a photo contest for some ten years. When I first came to Japan, I had no idea of how to start working on getting my photographs published. I was a newcomer with nothing but a selection of slides I had brought with me and several publication credits in North America. So I entered photo contests to see what that would get me. Naturally, I received twice as many rejections than placements, but the times I placed, even as nyusen 入選(accepted for the exhibition but no prize) or shinsain shoreisho 審査員奨励賞(judge’s award of encouragement), meant my photographs would be exhibited in a gallery or hall and I could add a small notch of achievement to my CV.

Once a stock agency (Ainoa) took on handling my photographs, I was encouraged by a magazine editor to no longer enter contests as it would not look good if someone recognized me as a “professional” but with a low placement in a contest. “Now’s the time for people to start asking you to submit photos, not the other way around.”

However, recently I have not been doing much in the professional department and a friend told me about the Canon New Cosmos of Photography Contest. We looked at the previous winners and had a derisive chuckle over the selected images. Some were appalling, nothing more than point-and-shot snaps of someone’s lunch or friends posing at the beach. What was this rubbish? But the prize money was impressive and provided a juicy enough carrot for the both of us to consider entering.

I toyed with the idea of some joke themes at first (holding the camera over my shoulder and shooting randomly) but then considered seriously the purpose of the contest, which was to show images that were only possible through photography. How about images edited in iPhone apps? The iPhone idea intrigued me. These days, people are capturing marvellous images on very expensive cameras and then editing them in software until they look like paintings. But the camera phone allows people to shoot many fleeting moments that most would otherwise have missed. In fact, I had only recently supposed that we are all becoming “Big Brother” because we are all watching and recording moments (usually of embarrassment) of other people’s lives. That gave me an idea!

My theme for the contest became “images of people behaving as they would in private on the train platforms and in the trains.” For short, I used the album title by a band called Dark Suns and replaced the word “grave” with the word “train”: “Train Human Genuine”. The images were all iPhone snaps of people behaving either a little too privately or inconsiderately at the train stations or on the trains, plus some of people captured at interesting and decisive moments. In a way, I wanted to show how Japanese people’s manners in public can be at times not so proper and exemplary. It was to be a sort of photo journalism piece of real people in commute.

But there was one problem: the contest stipulated that any recognizable human subjects should give permission to having their photograph entered in the contest. I did not know who these people were and had never spoken to them. I decided to try to edit their faces to conceal their identity. The result was some poor efforts at concealing their eyes.

Well, my submission was out in the first round of judging. There were some possible reasons why: the people were still too recognizable; the bad job of distorting their eyes spoiled the effect of the photos; the submission just wasn’t impressive enough; the submission just wasn’t surprisingly mundane enough; the iPhone-captured images weren’t approvable by Canon; showing Japanese people’s bad manners would not make for a good winning submission; and others. So, the next best thing I can do for now is share my submission here with the titles I gave each image. So, here it is:

Train Human Genuine

Ascending Priority - Every day in stations across Japan, disembarking passengers flood the staircases, completely ignoring the descending priority sign. People like me who occasionally have to rush down the steps to reach the train often need strong shoulders to force our way down the descending priority stairs through the dumbwalkers staring at their feet or phones.

Ascending Priority – Every day in stations across Japan, disembarking passengers flood the staircases, completely ignoring the descending priority sign. People like me who occasionally have to rush down the steps to reach the train often need strong shoulders to force our way down the descending priority stairs through the dumbwalkers staring at their feet or phones.

Her Choice - Not an example of bad behaviour at all but rather not an unusual scene in Japan. However, recently the news reported that young people entering seaside stations had to be told to change their clothes as many attempted to board the train in sandy, wet, revealing beach wear. Maybe I needed some shots of bikini-clad babes.

Her Choice – Not an example of bad behaviour at all but rather not an unusual scene in Japan. However, recently the news reported that young people entering seaside stations had to be told to change their clothes as many attempted to board the train in sandy, wet, revealing beach wear. Maybe I needed some shots of bikini-clad babes.

His Secret - Again, not bad behaviour but an amusing coincidence. A man sits beneath an advertisement for a TV program "Youkai Ningen", roughly translated as "Monster Human"

His Secret – Again, not bad behaviour but an amusing coincidence. A man sits beneath an advertisement for a TV program “Yokai Ningen”, roughly translated as “Monster Human”

Otsukare 1 - After a hard day's work in Japan, people say, "Otsukare-sama", an acknowledgement of their fatigue from their efforts. This man was really shagged out. He was alive; I checked! But when the train finally came (over 40 minutes late), he didn't get up. I think he had fallen asleep.

Otsukare 1 – After a hard day’s work in Japan, people say, “Otsukare-sama”, an acknowledgement of their fatigue from their efforts. This man was really shagged out. He was alive; I checked that he was breathing! But when the train finally came (over 40 minutes late), he didn’t get up. I think he had fallen asleep.

Otsukare 2 - Another guy who is probably very glad that the day is done.

Otsukare 2 – Another guy who is probably very glad that the day is done.

Our Space - Two young ladies take up the priority seats meant for elderly, pregnant or disabled passengers. Two girls, four seats. When an elderly woman boarded the train she politely yet firmly requested a seat. The girls obliged without looking up or saying anything.

Our Space – Two young ladies take up the priority seats meant for elderly, pregnant or disabled passengers. Two girls, four seats. When an elderly woman boarded the train she politely yet firmly requested a seat. The girls obliged without looking up or saying anything.

Special Notice - This message intrigued me as it flashed across the message board. The full message announced that a train was delayed due to an act of violence committed against the station staff.

Special Notice – This message intrigued me as it flashed across the board. The full message announced that a train was delayed due to an act of violence committed against the station staff.

No One Offered Her a Seat - It's very common to see young people and some middle-aged commuters seated with their eyes closed, while elderly passengers or mothers carrying babies stand until someone alert and awake notices. This elderly woman seemed not to care about being without a seat as she quite comfortably squatted by the door.

No One Offered Her a Seat – It’s very common to see young people and some middle-aged commuters seated with their eyes closed, while elderly passengers or mothers carrying babies stand until someone alert and awake notices. This elderly woman seemed not to care about being without a seat as she quite comfortably squatted by the door.

The Dance of Commuter Feet - The arrangement of the different pairs of feet gave me the impression of a kind of dance. Shortly after snapping this scene, the young woman with her feet pointed inwards changed her position.

The Dance of Commuter Feet – The arrangement of the different pairs of feet gave me the impression of a kind of dance. Shortly after snapping this scene, the young woman with her feet pointed inwards changed her position.

February Snow

It all started on February 4th. I stepped outside of my workplace and watched feather-sized clusters of snow flakes falling from a heavy grey sky. It was as though the gods were in the throes of a pillow fight.

Cluster flakes!

Cluster flakes!

I looked forward to the following day because after a busy working morning I would have time for a leisurely stroll through a rural area in Ina Town.

Melting snow in a rural area in Ina Town, Saitama

Melting snow in a rural area in Ina Town, Saitama

The sun was up that morning, however, and the snow was already melting by the time I set out with my camera around my neck. Not sure if and when we might get snow next, I tried to at least get a few record shots for my photographic files of the area.

A small chestnut tree casts its shadow over the rapidly melting snow.

A small chestnut tree casts its shadow over the rapidly melting snow.

I was barely aware on Friday the 7th that things were about to get a little more serious. A heavy snow warning was issued and I was told that my morning classes on Saturday were cancelled. We would see about the afternoon and evening. The moon was still visible in the sky that night but by Saturday morning a gentle shroud of powder was settling over the ground. Not trusting the trains, I drove to work against my wife’s protests. With only summer tires on the car she was very worried about whether or not I would be able to come home that night.

Falling snow in a wetland area between Ina and Hasuda in Saitama

Falling snow in a wetland area between Ina and Hasuda in Saitama

The snow fell heavily – over 20 centimetres – but I not only successfully drove the car home again but also managed to head over to a supermarket and pick up a few things in case we couldn’t get out the next day.

It’s surprising to see how many drivers don’t know how to drive safely in snow. On a tertiary highway, I was able to keep a speed of 30 to 40 km/h and only slowed down for curves and intersections. But I encountered drivers who barely attained a speed of 15 km/h and – on the way to work in the morning – an idiot who thought tailgating me in the snow as I followed a truck was an entirely proper and sane thing to do. I also had to pass a driver who drove in the middle of a two-lane highway and when I did try to pass, the car moved in front of me without evening a signal flash. Then there was the driver with 20 centimetres of snow piled on his roof. As he turned through the intersection, greats cakes of snow calved off and slid over his windshield. And the final fool of the night was the man riding his bicycle on the highway, against the traffic, while holding an umbrella in one hand.

The next morning the news was reporting 28cm of snow in Tokyo, the most in 45 years! I spent much of the morning with my neighbour’s snow shovel and a couple of other neighbours digging out our cars and street.

The morning after the February 8th snowfall in my neighbourhood.

The morning after the February 8th snowfall in my neighbourhood.

A tree in my garden was bent over the street and I had to snip off some branches. This would have been a great time for winter scene photography but it wasn’t until Tuesday morning that I finally took a bit of time to visit Higashi Matsuyama for some rural photography. That day was February 11th – a national holiday – but I had to go on a school trip that day. The good news for me was that after the working day was done, I was treated to a fairly decent sunset as I drove through Hanyu Town.

A rice field under the snow

A rice field under the snow

A dirt road is only just becoming exposed three days after the snowfall.

A dirt road is only just becoming exposed three days after the snowfall.

Sunset in Hanyu

Sunset in Hanyu

By Friday the real trouble was about to begin. Once again the snow began to fall and as I walked from the station back home I thought how beautiful the snow looked in the lights of the local warehouses and courier depot. Without my camera, I had to resort to some iPhone snaps.

At my train station

At my train station

Walking home

Walking home

A tree in the lights of a warehouse

A tree in the lights of a warehouse

The warehouse fence

The warehouse fence

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Snow-covered tree under a street light

Snow-covered tree under a street light

But the next morning the snow had turned to rain and the worse case scenario occurred: a thick layer of water-soaked snow. In Kumagaya, not far from where I live, they had received a record-breaking 61cm. The roof of the gymnasium at Fujimi High School collapsed from the weight. Green houses and car port covers bent and folded. The roof of the sports dome at the Kumagaya Sports Park tore in great gaping holes. My trees were almost touching the street from the weight of the snow they bore. My neighbour’s son had to take an entrance exam in Omiya that day and they fought and struggled to get out of our neighbourhood in their car. I helped push three times as they got stuck. No one came out to clear their cars or the street until the sopping rain had stopped by early afternoon. My train was not running and my car was blocked in. My neighbour had taken his shovel to Omiya and so I used a dust pan to excavate my car. As a neighbour across the street stepped out to inspect the circumstances, a great avalanche thundered from her roof and came down over her garden wall, knocking an ornamental picket fence to the street and bending her mailbox post to an 80 degree angle.

Me with a dust pan and my neighbour with a snow shovel - man we cleared a lot of snow!

Me with a dust pan and my neighbour with a snow shovel – man we cleared a lot of snow!

There was no pleasant sunshine today to help melt the snow as there had been the previous weekend. Tokyo reported the most snow in 120 years. Kofu in Yamanashi reported 140cm! In Chichibu, Saitama, the local train line was immobilized and as of the 27th of February it was still not running past Chichibu Station and into the mountains. To make things worse, hundreds of trucks were stranded on the Usui Pass between Nagano and Gunma. A visit to the supermarket brought back memories of the 11/3/11 earthquake as bread, milk, and other commodities with short expiry dates were unavailable.

Got milk?

Got milk?

Give us this day our daily bread...

Give us this day our daily bread…

As the snow began to melt floods began occurring as the drains were blocked. The news reported only about the snow and the Winter Olympics.

A tumulus at the Sakitama Burial Mound Park in Gyoda City

A tumulus at the Sakitama Burial Mound Park in Gyoda City

Benches facing a lake of windblown snow and thick ice

Benches facing a lake of windblown snow and thick ice

A field near the Sakitama Burial Mounds

A field near the Sakitama Burial Mounds

But the days warmed up and the snow once more began to disappear. On Thursday night, as I stepped out of the supermarket across the street from my station, I looked over to the taxi rotary and saw a mini Alaskan Range. A chain of snow mountains shone under the rotary lights like peaks in the moonlight. At one end there stood an enormous hulking mass of snow – the Denali Peak of the scene. I wished to photograph my impression but the orange plastic poles blocking off the area to vehicular traffic stood in front of the scene like security poles without a rope at a museum exhibit.

Damage done: A collapsed green house in Konosu City, Saitama

Damage done: A collapsed green house in Konosu City, Saitama

Expensive repair job: the new roof with air conditioning and sunroof at the Kumagaya Sports Park

Expensive repair job: the new roof with air conditioning and sunroof at the Kumagaya Sports Park