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New Feature: Interviews With EFL Teachers In “Hot Spots” Around The World — First Up: Japan

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For the past two years I have had, and will continue to have, an Interview Of The Month with a person in the education world who I wanted to learn more about and whom I thought readers might be interested in.

A little while ago, though, I had an idea for a new regular interview series. There are always lots of “hot spots” around the world — places where there are natural disasters, political upheavals, etc. And English teachers can be found in most of those places. Why not, I thought to myself, take advantage of this kind of international network and do short, timely, interviews with these teachers?

I’m kicking-off this series of “hot spot” interviews with Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto in Japan. Two additional teachers in Japan with unique perspectives will also be contributing their thoughts in future interviews, as well as English teachers from countries experiencing revolutions in the Middle East.

I know English teachers from many parts of the world read this blog. If you are in a place that is a “hot spot” now, or in the future, and you feel safe participating in an interview, please contact me. These short interviews can also be anonymous if necessary for safety purposes.

Now, here’s my interview with Barbara:

Can you say a little about yourself — how long you’ve been in Japan, what and where do you teach, why you decided to teach English and why you came to Japan? And, of course, tell us about your blog!

I’m an English teacher in Kyushu, Japan. I started out as a high school English teacher in the US, and came to Japan in 1985 after getting my MA in TESOL. I thought I would stay for a couple of years in order to pay off student loans, and have been splitting my time between the US and Japan ever since.

My first job in Japan was in Sendai (where the earthquake hit) and I was there at the beginning of February to do a teacher training workshop with Oxford University Press. It was very strange to see places I had so recently visited during and after the quake and tsunami. In addition to teaching and teacher training, I write. I’m a co-author of Let’s Go (a series for young learners of English). I have a collaborative blog for teachers of English called Teaching Village.

Where were you when the quake hit? How close are you to the epicenter, the tsunami and the damaged nuclear plants? How did the quake feel?  And what was your immediate reaction and feeling, as well as the reactions from your neighbors?  And how has it affected you life since that time?

I would not have noticed that there was a quake if I hadn’t been looking at Twitter. Kitakyushu (where I live) is over 1000 kilometers from Sendai and nearly the same distance from Fukushima, and didn’t shake at all. While we had tsunami warnings, and the tide did rise, it was minimal. Almost immediately after seeing mentions of the quake on Twitter and Facebook, there was live TV coverage of the tsunami. It was surreal to watch the destruction of a place I know well, all happening just about 2 hours away by plane.

The immediate reaction here was to turn to Facebook since that’s where people first reported that they were okay. Landlines didn’t work, but people were able to access the internet on mobile phones. Friends in Tokyo talked about their 2-10 hour treks home to the suburbs (when trains stopped). Then people began more actively tracking down other friends who hadn’t checked in. The strong aftershocks have made everyone quite weary. Most of the aftershocks would be considered decent sized earthquakes on their own if they weren’t following a 9.0 initial quake. There have been well over 600 quakes and aftershocks in little more than a week. None of them have been felt in far western Japan, which adds to the surreal feeling we have here.

The quake and tsunami has had two main effects on life here. First, people are still very concerned about residents still in Tohoku, are all trying to find ways to help locate people still missing, and trying to get supplies to the survivors. Second, Kyushu is getting ready to house long-term evacuees in private homes and in government housing, and some companies in Tokyo that are moving operations to Fukuoka (for a time, anyway).

Like most others in Japan, I watch a lot more news now, both on TV and via the Internet. My heart soars each time I see survivors found and trucks arriving in Tohoku with supplies, it breaks every time I see survivors still waiting for help at their evacuation centers or looking for missing family members, and it swells with pride when I see how hard everyone is trying, both here and abroad, to help people in Tohoku.

How would you say people in Japan are reacting to the quake, tsunami and nuclear dangers?   Is it how you might have expected them to react, or have you had any surprises?

Japanese have earthquake safety drills beginning in kindergarten, so people generally know what to do. Public schools are in ugly, but very sturdy concrete buildings, and people know to head there during a disaster. However, Japanese and foreign residents are individuals, and reactions to the disaster are as unique here as they would be anywhere else in the world. Some people in the midst of the devastation are staying positive in the face of difficult-to-imagine hardships, and other people far away from any immediate risk are leaving the country for fear of what might happen. People have to make choices that work for them and their families.

One surprise to me has been the amount of aid donated from within the country. Japan’s economy hasn’t been so good recently, and money is tight for most families. It seems as if everyone has contributed something already, both money and goods, whether it’s anonymous donors giving 1 million yen or children donating their allowance. People have been waiting hours in line to donate blood, trying to conserve electricity and gas, and (down here, at least) sharing information about where things and money can be donated for the best effect.

Apart from the economic challenges, what you do think might be some long-term implications of the quake for the country and its people?

Some of the long-term implications are good. In some ways, it has already strengthened the bonds of people who live here (and are staying) through shared experiences and common goals. Suddenly, there are things more important than a bad economy. People finally understood the value of the mobile web after the quake. In many cases, that was the only thing working immediately after the quake. Friends who never cared are looking at smart phones, and signing up for Twitter and Facebook after seeing how effective those networks were in disseminating information and connecting people.

Japan will also probably develop a more effective warning system for tsunami–perhaps allowing people to register for alerts to come directly to mobile phones rather than depending on someone to sound an alarm. (In some cases, however, no alert system would have made a difference. The waves were simply higher than anyone had expected or prepared for.) This has probably been the best documented disaster ever–there was live video of the entire thing, and incredible monitoring of all the various bits including magnitude, tsunami, and radiation. The data over the progression of events will likely teach scientists a great deal that will help mitigate future disasters.

Some of the long-term implications are not so good. For example, Japan depends a great deal on foreign teachers to teach English in both public and private schools. Some teachers are among the missing, and others have left the country after losing homes or simply becoming fearful. It becomes a bigger problem for the long term if teachers become afraid to come to Japan (because of fears about being in an earthquake or being exposed to radiation). Additionally, Some small language school owners in the Tohoku region will struggle to keep their schools open staff and students either missing or evacuated, and with businesses relocating to other locations in Japan.

Are you committed to staying in Japan, or have you had any thoughts about leaving?

Leaving never crossed my mind, but I’m far from any damage or radiation and Japan is my home.

Is there anything I haven’t asked you about that you’d like to share?

People here have been really moved (and perhaps a little surprised) by the outpouring of concern and support from other countries. It has been truly moving. Teachers from around the world have contacted me asking how they and their students can help students here. The immediate priority is obviously to find survivors and get them urgently needed medical supplies, warm clothing, blankets, and food. Once things have settled a bit and schools are open again, I’m sure there will be plenty of opportunities for teachers to help teachers and schools in Tohoku. In the meantime, ELT News has set up a page where people can leave messages of support for teachers, students, and families here: We love Japan!

I’ve found myself moved to tears by some of the comments there, and hope that many more will be added to the collection. These comments are being seen, and appreciated, by students and teachers (both Japanese and foreign). Thank you!

Thank YOU, Barbara, and be safe!

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Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.

4 Comments

  1. Thanks, Larry, for asking me to kick off your new series! I’m looking forward to reading future interviews from teachers in hot spots around the world :-)

  2. This is such a great idea Larry. Thank you. I would like to try to arrange some real-time online interviews of this type in study.com classes if possible.

  3. Following the quake & tsunami, 1 of the major news networks had the U.S. commentator interviewing a US citizen that was in Japan teaching English. During the interview, the “teacher” described the resultant rescue of kids in a school gym. In every sentence or every other, he used the work, “like.” Like there was a terrible trembling and like the kids and teachers were like running everywhere. Not an exact quote, but you get the point. Was this supposed teacher from LA? Or is this the caliber of English teachers that we’re sending to (like) Japan and other foreign countries?

  4. I’m not sure what to tell you, Miguel, since I didn’t hear that interview. The teacher may have been from California (although I hear “like” used this way in other parts of the country, too). He may have been reverting to his vernacular because he was shaken, and being interviewed by someone from his own country.

    As in any education system, teachers in Japan can be placed somewhere along a spectrum ranging from new or inexperienced to experienced and/or skilled. You certainly can’t judge an entire country’s worth of teachers based on one interview of one teacher in a non-teaching context.

    Most people seem to be able to handle more than one register of our native language–the casual language we use with friends and family and the more standard language we use when teaching or in professional contexts.

    Hope this, like, sort of clarifies everything, you know :-)

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