Friday, February 23, 2007

Standoff at Kisaki

Kisaki, a small community in Toyosaka City, lies twenty kilometers east of central Niigata. Some eighty years ago it was the scene of a bitter and protracted feud between tenant farmers, landlords, and a particularly intransigent superintendent of local schools, Majima Keijiro.
Having formed a union in the early 1920s, the local tenant farmers sought to negotiate a 20% reduction in their rents. To this demand the landlords acceded, but they were overruled by the head of their association, one Majima Keijiro. The tenants responded by refusing to pay any tax at all, whereupon Majima received a court order prohibiting the tenants from working their land. Taking personal responsibility for the failure of the tenants' cause, the union leader committed suicide, and nearly half of the farmers capitulated. Mr. Majima wasn't satisfied, however, for he then demanded that the recalcitrants be evicted and made to pay all taxes they owed.
The bailiff dispatched to execute the court's order was nearly despatched himself, and clashes between police and farmers ensued, resulting in numerous arrests. Majima was superintendent of schools, in addition to being an influential landlord, and the tenants retaliated by removing their children, some 600 all told, from public schools. They then established separate schools to educate their children, the first time such a development had occured in Japan.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

James Porcaro: Time to end the use of ALTs

Mr James Porcaro is an associate professor of English as a foreign language at the Toyama University of International Studies, as well as "special" to the Daily Yomiuri. In a recent edition of the aforementioned paper, Porcaro impugns the integrity of the systems whereby native English speakers are employed by the Ministry of Education, as well as municipal boards of education, to assist Japanese teachers of English in junior and senior high school English classes. Does this obscure pedagogue possess indisputable evidence to support his vitriolic assertion that the ALT program is "a wasteful expenditure of massive funds"? Hardly, for as the author of "Time to end the use of ALTs" himself admits, "There seem to be no comprehensive studies with valid empirical evidence to show that the presence of ALTs...has effected any notable advance in students' English language proficiency..." Nonetheless, in the crucible of Porcaro's disordered brain this is proof positive that ALTs are a waste of taxpayer money. As for studies demonstrating the opposite, namely that ALTs are wholly without educational value, Porcaro is curiously reticent concerning them. Should we anticipate a forthcoming magnum opus on the very subject from this towering intellect of the provinces? Is this article, which initially managed to appear in a newsletter published by the Japan Association of Language Teachers, merely the abstract, as it were? On what foundation, then, do the spurious claims of our "special" correspondent rest? Well, he has a few anecdotes, he has perused the musings of a former ALT, and he has observed the lessons of "about 20 ALTs...over the past two decades". In twenty years James Porcaro has observed as many ALTs, and yet he feels this superficial contact authorizes him to make sweeping characterizations that apply to the many thousands of ALTs who have successfully assisted public English education in this country during the same period? Most scientific indeed, this process of induction, but not unsurprising from an academic who in two decades has yet to publish anything of merit, scholarly or otherwise. I invite you, James Porcaro, to visit Niigata City and to observe the English lessons of the outstanding ALTs employed by the city Board of Education. You could then claim to have observed about thirty ALTs during the last twenty years, and you could reap the benefits of an addition to your meager fund of empirical knowledge. Furthermore, to offset the testimony of "scores of JTEs [Japanese Teachers of English}" whom you allege to have disparaged ALTs, I should be happy to introduce you to scores of Niigata JTEs who greatly value our contributions and expertise. So great is their appreciation, in fact, that in many cases the JTEs request of the BOE that a particular ALT return to the same junior high school the following year. Furthermore, I should like you to meet the many students who have attended our popular summer English Camp, as well as those who have been motivated and inspired by us to experience an overseas homestay. There are countless others, currently enrolled in intensive English programs at high school or pursuing a university degree in the language, who someday hope to enter a profession requiring advanced English proficiency. We ALTs reasonably claim some credit for this. Before committing yourself to print on some future occasion, James Porcaro, I suggest you research your subject a trifle more thoroughly. In the present instance it is painfully obvious that you know next to nothing about ALTs and the valuable work they do.

Japan's Second Minamata Outbreak

Note: On March 13, 2007, two male residents of Niigata City were added to the number of those afflicted with Minamata Disease.
The pictures show the lower reaches of the Agano River, which empties into the Sea of Japan in eastern Niigata City. The headwaters of the Agano are rise in neighboring Fukushima, and the mountains along the prefectural boundary are faintly visible in the photo at center. Forty years ago few would have dared fish here, for the Agano was the scene of Japan's Second Minamata Disease outbreak. The world's first documented case of methyl mercury poisoning of humans through foodchain contamination had occurred years earlier in Kumamoto, a prefecture on the southern island of Kyushu. In that case, the Chisso Corporation was dumping contaminated wastewater into nearby waterways, resulting in the poisoning of fish and shellfish in Minamata Bay. Local inhabitants who consumed contaminated marine products later contracted the terrible neurological disorder that came to be known as Minamata Disease. Due in large part to the heroic efforts of photojournalist W.E. Smith, who moved to the area with his Japanese wife in order to document the tragedy, Minamata sufferers received an outpouring of sympathy from around the world. Smith himself was savagely beaten by thugs in the hire of Chisso, temporarily losing his hearing and suffering declining health thereafter.
The Showa Denko Chemical Corporation was the source of Niigata's Minamata outbreak. Located forty miles upstream from the mouth of the Agano, in Kanose Town, the chemical plant dumped polluted, untreated wastewater directly into the river. As had happened in Kyushu nearly a decade earlier, locals began to notice large fish kills, and stray cats showed symptoms of a strange distemper. Eventually, the inhabitants of downstream communities developed the classic symptoms of mercury poisoning, and doctors at Niigata University's Medical School promptly diagnosed Minamata Disease. Medical researchers from Kumamoto University were summoned to lend their expertise and experience, and Showa was quickly identified as the source of the pollution. Mirroring the Chisso Corporation's response, executives at Showa were uncooperative, even suggesting that the massive earthquake to hit Niigata City the previous year was somehow responsible for the outbreak, this despite full knowledge that its wastewater was highly toxic, being the effluent of a manufacturing process almost identical to that employed by Chisso. Obstruction and obfuscation were of no avail, however, but that must offer little consolation to the 690 victims of Showa's criminal negligence. I am unaware whether the executives of either corporation spent any time in prison, surely the only suitable place for them to complete the term of their wretched existence. Wikipedia is an oustanding source of comprehensive information about Minamata Disease.