The Japanese play it safe a lot. It’s one of the things that makes travel here so refreshing. The streets are safe from most crime, the building codes are strict, the food is clean and carefully marked, the people are polite and there is a general social cohesion. That means there are a lot of things about Japan that the occasional visitor may not notice – especially when the visitor is a member of the media looking for “news”.
This comes to mind since there had been some reporting about Japan that, as a somewhat frequent visitor, I found disingenuous at best. For instance, there were some reports that the people of Tokyo were wearing cloth face masks due to fear of radiation. The Japanese have been wearing face masks for decades – to protect both themselves and others from germs, dust, pollen, etc. One of our guide wears one all spring due to allergies. In a society where blowing your nose is frowned upon, a face mask is a way of dealing with all sorts of physical discomfort while still keeping with the Japanese tendency to put the good of the group over the individual.
Another example is that they are supposedly only “now” labeling food with its place of origin due to fears about food from Fukashima prefecture. I remember being in Japan last year and seeing a very large apology posted in a department store because they had advertised chickens on sale as being from one prefecture when a few that they sold came from some other prefecture. Food origination information is NOT a new phenomenon in Japan – it’s part of how they work and think. Food quality is highly valued and each area has specialties. These are displayed proudly and are used as reference points – one buys abalone from this place and turnips from that place.
So with all that concern for safety and hygiene as practically inbred into the culture, it brings to mind a question about the children. If you think that Japanese are vigilant about their personal health and safety, it’s nothing compared to the health and safety efforts they take for their children. Little hard hats immediately available in case of earthquakes, regular drills, special foods and vitamins, and on and on. So with all this concern, it got me thinking – how are the people of Japan protecting their children from the disasters that have just befallen the country?
Well, it seems from a casual observation over the past 7 days that they are going about their business as usual. During our touring we saw many large groups of school kids – in a range of ages and at a range of sights and events. Unlike in the US, where it seems there are far fewer field trips and, when they occur, the kids all take a bus to a nearby farm and are back for lunch – the Japanese seem to travel quite long distances in groups from a young age. We saw lots of kids on field trips on public transportation – whole classes of children, of all ages, in their uniforms or cute matching hats, accompanied by their teachers, patiently sitting on the station floors, lined up for 1/2 hour before their train departs, filing onto the trains and into their seats. And this wasn’t just subway trains; it was Shinkansen trains across half the country. And it wasn’t 16-year olds – we saw kids about 7-8 at the Kyoto Shinkansen station. As an aside, I wondered what would happen if one of them strayed off. And then I realized that they had been doing this for so long, since they were so young, that they would probably be totally equipped to just find the right authorities to help, get onto the next train and catch up with their group. Of course, this would never happen since a) the Japanese are so efficient that the teachers wouldn’t let it happen and b) the kids are so obedient that they wouldn’t even think of straying off… But they would be safe.
So it made me wonder – were the people in the areas of Japan we traveled to suddenly indifferent to the dangers that the rest of the world seems to think exists here and so, were willing to expose their kids to a potentially toxic and lethal environment, OR, is it possible, that they have now become informed enough to be secure in the knowledge that they can send their kids to school, to events and even on train trips across half the country without undue concern for their long-term well-being?
On a visit with a local hotel manager (of foreign origin) in Kyoto, he told me that recently he had a conversation with a European traveler planner who asked if it was safe to be in Kyoto. His reply: “I send my kids to school here.” And wouldn’t a parent be the one to wind up saying more than anything a hyped-up media could ever say about a place?