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Another hot Japanese day

I step outside into another hot, sticky, Japanese summer day. By the time I have descended the stairs from my apartment I am already glistening with sweat from the heat. My small town, a suburb of Tokyo, is always full of life. Along the little roads people are going this way and that, trying to get the day’s tasks completed. There are people on bikes, scooters, and some hiding from the sun’s rays under umbrellas, all minding their own business and not paying much mind to the surroundings. As I stroll down these now familiar streets I am once again confronted with the extremes that permeate every part of life in Japan.

It is a hot day, so me, along with everyone else is dreaming of a cold drink. In order to ensure that a person can get a drink at the exact moment that he/she might get thirsty there is an over abundance of vending machines. During the short five minute walk from my apartment to the train station it is hard to go more than twenty feet and not pass a vending machine. Almost any type of drink can be found in these vending machines. Not only are there multiple locations along my route, there are a few on the train platform and a couple on my way out of the next station where I exit for work, and on my short walk from this station to my school there are, guess what… more vending machines. Along with a plethora of vending machines for drinks there is a whole corner of vending machines dedicated to cigarettes.

Cool drinks on a hot day

Some vending machines even have TVs built into them, as if one might get bored during the brief time it takes to make a decision on what drink to buy. I could understand this ubiquity of vending machines if there was a lack of stores. But, there are also several stores along the way. Just outside of both stations there are large convenience stores, as well as, stores inside the stations, and even kiosks on all of the platforms. To me it seems like a bit of overkill. At least I know that when that urge for a drink comes I won’t need to wait long before I can quench it.

Today I am also struck by the pervasiveness of the formal Japanese dress code. At least one in every five people that walk past me is dressed in either a business suit or a school uniform. It is way too hot for anybody to be wearing slacks and a tie. I would normally see even more business suits, but this summer many companies have adopted, ‘cool biz,’ attire.

‘Cool biz,’ is an idea passed down by the government. It is a push for casual wear during the hot summer months. With ‘cool biz,’ sport jackets and ties are not mandatory during the hot, humid season. The government and many companies throughout the country have adopted this dress code. This reprieve from formality is done in the name of fighting global warming. The theory is that if the men don’t have to wear as many clothes during the summer then the office thermostat won’t have to be kept so low. Saving energy by keeping the air conditioning units running less will supposedly help Japan meet its Kyoto Protocol goals. Whether or not this will have any effect whatsoever on global warming is open to debate.

It is an enigma why business people and heads of companies need to be told that it is inhumane to be forced to wear a sport jacket and tie when the temperature is 95 F/36 C degrees and the humidity is 90%.  But, breaking with tradition is always hard and it is easier when the decision to make the break comes from the top. It frees everyone from responsibility and from going against the grain.

Even the students are in formal dress. Despite the fact that they are on summer vacation most of them are wearing their school uniforms. Many of them are coming or going to club activities at school and even though their stay at school will be brief they wear their school uniform. Seeing students donning school uniforms while out of school reminds me of the comments a couple of my students made when asked if they agreed on mandatory school uniforms. They both said that school uniforms were good because it kept decisions to a minimum and it was tiring having to choose one’s own clothes each day. So, I guess the particular students I am seeing today are only trying to avoid a headache. Summer just doesn’t seem the same without kids in shorts, tank tops, and flip flops.

As I quickly duck into my building, trying to get out of the sauna the day has become my mind drifts to one of my students, whose life at only fourteen already seems overwhelming. She is a great kid, who does whatever is asked of her and always gives her best effort, I sometimes wonder how long she can keep it all up, though. On top of all the homework she has from school she also attends ‘juku’ (cram school) four nights a week. Two nights a week she goes to a school where she studies Japanese, science, math, and history. At our school she studies English twice a week, one time from the Japanese English grammar teacher and one time from me, focusing on listening and speaking. She comes to see me on Saturday nights at 8:00 PM, usually after having a game earlier in the day. I don’t know a single fourteen year old student in America who would come to school on a Saturday, let alone at 8:00 PM.

On top of all this she is a member of the softball club at her school. The softball club practices every day of the week and has games on the weekend, sometimes on Saturday AND Sunday. There are certain weeks when she doesn’t have a day without some sort of after school commitment. Plus, the practice for all sports clubs in Japan is year round. The only time students get a break from practice is during test weeks. Fourteen years old, in junior high school is tough enough, let alone with all these extra pressures. At twenty seven I don’t want to be that busy, but then again I am not being prepared for the extremes that will be expected of me throughout life.

Upon entering the office I say hello to the friendly secretary and head for the air conditioning. Even with my ‘cool biz,’ like attire, I didn’t ask if it was okay I decided that if the prime minister was not wearing a tie this summer then I wasn’t either, I turn down the thermostat and stand under the blast of cool air. After regaining my composure I scan the bookshelves for a game. My students have enough going on in their lives, after a half an hour of studying we are going to play a game. Just showing up on time every week, to extra schooling, is extreme enough.

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