Thursday, January 19, 2012

My first day on the job.

I teach at a university in the Yokohama area.  I started several years ago, but I will never forget the first day and the first class.

"We're interested in someone who has skills in motivating students", I was told in the interview.

"Oh, do you have motivation problems?" I said brightly.  "I think I can deal with that!"

The man interviewing me said nothing.  He just looked down.

My first teaching day was a Thursday, an afternoon.  I had been warned 'not to expect too much'.  But I had worked with students of varying levels of interest before.  How bad could it be?

I walked into the classroom.  It was really what you might call a lecture room, dominated by a huge blackboard at the front.  About 20 students sat in seats, behind desks, towards the back, separated from each other by two or three other chairs.  Nobody was speaking or moving.

"Good afternoon!", I said.

Nothing.  A massive and deafening silence.

I tried again.  "Good afternoon!" Nothing.  I couldn't even detect any movement.  Maybe they were petrified, maybe they were mannequins, I couldn't tell.

I looked at the information I had been given.  Checked the room number.  The class number.

"Um, is this class 254?"

Nothing.  They sat there, looking at me without expression. 

Did I really have the right classroom?  How could this be possible?

I looked at one of the students.  "You!  What subject is this?"

The student looked blankly at me.  Perhaps he wasn't there.  Perhaps I was hallucinating.

"What's your name?" I pointed directly at another of the students, a big no-no in Japan.  But my options were shrinking.


"What's your name?"  I spoke more loudly.

"Matsumoto Shunsuke desu." He spoke in rapid-fire heavily accented Japanese.

I looked at my class roll.  There was a Shunksuke Matsumoto.  My heart sank.  I was in the right place after all.  There would be no escape.

These were students who had all studied English for a minimum of 7 years, often considerably more.  Many had gone to cram schools to 'improve' their English even more, had studied for hundreds of hours to pass university English exams to get here.

I looked at my textbook, which as an introduction to today's lesson suggested I get the students, in groups, to imagine they were travellers in a spaceship going to a new planet and roleplay from there.

It was going to be a long day.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Japan starts to pay the price for curtailing nuclear power

As I write this the Global Conference for a Nuclear Power-Free World, attended by thousands, is coming to a close in central Yokohama, a few kilometres away.  In this context it is worth reflecting upon some to the costs that Japan is starting to incur as a result of choosing to minimise its use of nuclear power now and in the future.

There are now only 5 nuclear power plants in the country currently in operation.  The other 49 have been shut down for maintenance or repairs, either directly after March 11 or in the months since then.  Many of these shutdowns were routine; the problem is that once shut down, no plant has been permitted to start up again.  It is unlikely that many will be allowed to do so without serious public debate.

Without the steady baseload that nuclear power has supplied, the shortfall is being made up with 'thermal' plants, i.e. fossil fuels.  This is already resulting in higher costs of electricity, and the Japan Times reported this weekend that TEPCO is asking permission to raise household rates this March as a direct result.

An even more worrying repercussion of this 'Back to the Future'-style return to dependence on fossil fuels was this week brought to the attention of many when Japan pondered the predicament of being pressured by the U.S. to cut all trading ties with Iran.  The U.S. is determined to pursue trade sanctions against Iran in an attempt to strangle Iran's alleged nuclear weapons program, yet Japan has traditionally had a friendly relationship with the Iranians, and gets 10% of its oil from them.  The Japanese have yet to decide what to do.  Meanwhile Iran is threatening, if provoked, to block the Strait of Hormuz completely, which carries one-fifth of the world's oil supply.

Once you start looking at global issues with the idea that nuclear power is the best possible large-scale power source available, your perception of many problems may change.  Since my conversion to a supporter of nuclear power I have challenged myself to imagine a world that is not dependent for energy supplies from dangerous theocratic nation-states in the Middle East.  An Iran that would have to gain the currency to build nuclear weapons from somewhere other than the pockets of people in other countries who want to heat their house or drive their car.  A world that doesn't need to go to war over oil.  An America that didn't need to invade Iraq.

When I think about this I am also reminded that uranium exploration has yet to be undertaken in many parts of the world, and that two-thirds of currently known reserves, enough to last for many decades, are in Canada and Australia, two mining-friendly democracies that are probably among the most stable and internationally respected nations in the world.