I recently began 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. If you are an EFL/ESL teacher in one of those areas, please let me know.

Today, Michael Stout, a longtime English teacher in Japan, has agreed to answer a few questions.
First, can you tell a little about yourself — where do you teach, why did you get involved in teaching English,  how did you end up in Japan, and how long have you been there?  How are you from the devastated areas, and from the nuclear dangers?

I’m originally from Toronto. I came to Japan almost 14 years ago. In the beginning I taught for a language school called NOVA. Then I moved on to work for an outsourcing company that placed me in junior and senior high schools. After that I worked at a high school. Now I teach at two universities. I sometimes wonder whether I was born to teach, or whether teaching has been thrust upon me. Perhaps it’s a bit of both. I got involved in teaching because I wanted to come to Japan. I saw Japan as a land of opportunity for me, and I’d always had an interest in Japan. I live in Tokyo, which is quite far from the devastated areas. I’m perfectly safe where I am.

You offer a pretty unique perspective on the quake and tsunami’s effect on Japan.  You left the country right before it hit, and you’ve just returned a little more than a week later.  What are two or three things that struck you the most upon your return?

I guess the first thing that struck me was that some of the lights in Narita airport had been turned off. Some of the railway stations shut down the escalators too. Those were just a couple of things being done to save energy. Some of the shelves in the shops were bare, but not like what was reported in the foreign media. Only one little porcelain bank was broken in my place. No serious damage at all. So I guess I was struck by how normal almost everything was. Things seemed much worse when I was in Greece.

I am a member of the Japan Association for Language Teaching’s board of directors, so I was receiving many e-mails every day, about what JALT’s response to the disaster should be, and how we’d implement it. One of our biggest concerns was the safety of members in the affected areas. I tried to help with this as best I could while I was overseas, as did our president, who was in New Orleans at the TESOL conference. I was overwhelmed by the response of my fellow directors, and so many JALT members. Everyone really rallied together and made a good and quick response to the situation. Little by little we saw more and more people checking in and letting us know they were safe. Many of these people started helping those less fortunate than them immediately. I guess the amazing generosity and kindness of so many people impressed me most.

Are there any particular differences between how you think many Japanese are responding to the disaster and how people in Western countries might respond to a similar tragedy?
Well, it’s difficult for me to answer this question because I truly don’t believe in this concept of “western countries”. All I can tell you is what I know of how people in Japan have responded. I’ll let you and your readers be the judge of whether the Japanese response is different than what another nation’s response might be.

For me, one of the fortunate things about being overseas when the disaster struck was that I could watch NHK World News, the English service of the Japanese government’s national broadcaster. NHK World isn’t available in Japan, and my comprehension isn’t good enough to understand the news in Japanese, so if I’d been in Japan at the time I’d have missed one very special story. A primary school teacher, living in one of the worst hit areas, sought out every one of her students. When she found them, she went to wherever they were and brought them a book, a special book of the kind that she knew that they would like to read. She talked to each one of them and encouraged them to keep their spirits up. This must have been physically, and emotionally exhausting for her, but she did it. So, what do you think? Mightn’t an American teacher do something like this? I think hard times bring out the best in people everywhere.

I can tell you a couple of more things about the Japanese response. My university asked all the professors, teachers and staff to refrain from wearing any flashy clothes to the convocation ceremony. The ceremony was shortened too. Some parts like the piano performance were cut. Many people are toning down their annual cherry blossom viewing parties too. This is out of respect for those unable to enjoy the spring. Also, there are rolling blackouts throughout the country to save energy and make it possible to maximise the amount of energy available to those who most need it up north. So, people across the country are making some sacrifices. Some big, some small. Some real, some mostly ritual. I think one would see a response like this in other countries that compared to Japan in wealth, and affluence.

How do you think the disaster has affected your students?

Interesting question. I’m keen to find that out. Well, I imagine that the students at Toyo Gakuen University were disappointed that they had to tone down their graduation celebrations. No doubt the girls wanted to wear kimono, and were disappointed that they couldn’t. Some of my students may have lost loved ones in the disaster. I don’t know yet. Frankly, I imagine that few were much affected because it happened so far away. Toyo Gakuen is over 200 kilometres from the affected areas. Perhaps some will drink more bottled water, and refrain from eating rice, or vegetables from up north. Actually, I do a unit on water in my Global Issues course at Shibaura Institute of Technology, the other university where I teach. One of the projects is a bottled water survey. I’m curious to see if more students think that bottled water is safer than tap water.

What impact do you think its had on the English teaching community in Japan?

Not sure. I know that some of the people who’ve left Japan were teachers, and their departure has placed a burden on those who stayed behind. Some schools may be less interested in hiring foreign teachers because they can’t trust them to stick around when things get tough. On the other hand, we’ve seen many teachers stay behind and really work hard to help out. I think this experience will make us stronger.

Are you planning to stay in Japan?  Are you tempted to leave?

Of course! Why would I leave? Japan is my home. One of my friends here said that staying is a way of thanking Japan for all it has given us. We have much to be thankful for, and it’s our home. The people who’ve left didn’t think of Japan as home.
What are the best ways people outside of Japan can help?

I think one of the best ways people outside Japan can help is to raise some money and donate it to low overhead organisations. One group called Hearts for Haragama is a group that is a great one to support for educators. Hearts for Haragama is a group of 7 people, 6 foreign and 1 Japanese who are raising money to help rebuild a kindergarden in Soma, Fukushima, called Haragama Yochien. Actually, this is a really heart-rending story too. A man called Tsukasa lost his home and all his possessions in the earthquake. Despite that, his first thought was for the children who attended the kindergarden he ran, Haragama Yochien, which was also destroyed. He immediately went to work to rebulid the kindergarden and do anything else he had to in order to get life back to normal for the children. The kindergarden was Tsukasa’s week-end occupation. He works full-time from Monday to Friday too. Incredible! I donated US$50 this month. I’ll donate $50 more next month.

Another organisation I’ve supported is Second Harvest Japan too. It’s a fantastic group I discovered when I was doing a project with high school students about homelessness.  Finally, supporting the efforts of local organisations such as the University of California Santa Cruz Japanese Students Association is another good way to help. Messages of support on Youtube, or posted on blogs and so on, would be very appreciated by Japanese people too, I think.

Thanks, Michael!