This is a short post to quickly provide the PDF version of the presentation that I and my JTL and wife Yoshie Holland and I presented at this year’s Sapporo ALT Skills Conference. The topic was “Cooperating and Communicating Effectively” at the Junior High Level. Check out the slideshow below, or click here to load the 7.6 mb .pdf file.
This year, the Sunshine English textbooks were updated. One of the new stories is called “Faithful Elephants” and is about the sad end of three elephants at Tokyo’s Ueno Zoo during WWII:
Many years ago, there were three wonderful elephants at the Ueno Zoo. The elephants were John, Tonky, and Wanly. They could do tricks. Visitors at the zoo loved the see their tricks.
Japan was at war then. Little by little the situation was getting worse. Bombs were dropped on Tokyo every day.
If bombs hit the zoo, dangerous animals will get away and harm the people of Tokyo. So, the Army ordered the zoo to kill all the dangerous animals such as lions, tigers, and bears. Before long, it was time to kill the three elephants. The zookeepers did not want to kill them, but they had to follow the orders. They started with John.
John loved potatoes, so they gave him poisoned potatoes together with good ones. But John was so clever that he ate only the good potatoes. Then they tried to give him an injection. But John’s skin was too hard for the needles to go through.
When this did not work, they decided to give him no food. Poor John died in seventeen days.
Then the time came for Tonky and Wanly. They always looked at people with loving eyes. They were sweet and gentle-hearted.
However, the elephant keepers had to stop giving them anything to eat. When a keeper walked by their cage, they stood up and raised their trunks high in the air. They did their tricks because they were hoping to get food and water.
Everyone at the zoo said with tears, “If they can live a few more days, the war may be over and they will be saved.”
Tonky and Wanly could no longer move. They lay down on the ground, but their eyes were beautiful.
When an elephant keeper came to see them, they looked so weak. He became too sad to go back to see them.
Bombs continued to drop in Tokyo. And a few days later, Tonky and Wanly died. Later, when the bodies of the elephants were examined, nothing was found in their stomachs — not even one drop of water.
Today, the three elephants rest in peace with other animals under the monument at the Ueno Zoo.
There are many, many things wrong with this story. Some grammatical, some stylistic.
However, I’m not concerned with these here. What I find unacceptable about this story’s inclusion in a textbook approved by MEXT (The Ministry of Education) is that it contains blatant historical inaccuracies, that when taken into consideration, completely undermine the importance of this story as a (purported) piece of history.
First, the story makes several statements or allusions that are simply untrue. In the second paragraph it says:
Bombs were dropped on Tokyo every day.
This is false.
Consider this timeline (which I will refer to later on).
- December 1941 – Attack on Pearl Harbor
- April 1942 – Doolittle bombing raids on Tokyo
- August 13th, 1943 – Starvation of John the elephant begins.
- August 1943 – John dies.
- September 4th, 1943 – A memorial service is held for all three elephants.
- September 11th, 1943 – Wanly the elephant dies.
- September 23rd, 1943 – Tonky the elephant dies.
- June 15th, 1944 – B-29 Raid on Kyushu launched from China. The first raid on the Japanese home islands since the Doolittle raid.
- Nov 17th, 1944 – B-29 raids on Tokyo begin and last until Japan’s surrender.
As you can see from this timeline, Tokyo was not bombed for a full two and a half years during the war – the time that the textbook alleges “Bombs were dropped on Tokyo everyday.”
This fact exposes another inconsistency in the story. The very next paragraph says:
If bombs hit the zoo, dangerous animals will get away and harm the people of Tokyo.
Since there were no bombs being dropped, this premise is false. The paragraph continues:
So, the Army ordered the zoo to kill all the dangerous animals such as lions, tigers, and bears.
If there were no bombs falling on Tokyo, then what was the reason for the killing of the animals? Even if there were bombs falling, if the bombs landed close enough to damage and open the metal cages, surely this would also injure or kill the animals. If their safety alone was the concern, then they could have been relocated to the countryside. There certainly could be other explanations – lack of food, lack of funds to maintain the zoo. After all, this was war. But of course, as in war, the true story of why, how, and by whom, the elephants were ordered to be killed is more complicated.
A few google searches revealed two useful resources on this incident. This article in Japan Focus, which chronicles in great detail the power struggle and series of events that led to the elephants’ deaths, and this webpage (in Japanese) devoted to the treatment of zoo animals in wartime. They both delve much further into the motivations and chronology than I will here in this textbook critique, but their main points are very important:
- The governor of Tokyo at that time, Odachi Shigeo, had recently returned from a posting as governor of Singapore, where he had seen the war firsthand. He felt that the people of Japan needed a shock to wake them up to the realities of war, and chose to use the elephants as martyrs to this end. As zoo director Koda wrote in his memoir about Governor Odachi, “when he returned to the motherland to become governor of Tokyo and saw the attitude of the people, he seems to have felt keenly that he had to open the people’s eyes to the fact that this was not the way to go, that war was not such an easy affair.” (市長をしていた大達さんは、内地に帰って、勝ち戦と思い戦争の怖さも知らないでいる国民に自覚させるために、動物園の猛獣を処分することによって警告を発したのでしょう。)
- Not only had Fukuda, the acting director of the zoo after Koga, “confidently listed” the amounts of poison needed to kill the elephants, but zoo records show that Tonky had been given injections of medicines and had had blood taken soon before his starvation. The story in the textbook says “Then they tried to give him an injection. But John’s skin was too hard for the needles to go through,” which seems unreasonable considering that injections and blood samples had been easily administered on Tonky. Why was John different?
- The story fails to explain why John was the first to go. As it turns out, John had been a violent elephant, and this was the reason for putting him down first. The zoo director “decided to put down the violent male elephant, John, and his starvation was begun on August 13th. (暴れん坊のオスのゾウ「ジョン」を処分することを決めて、8月13日より絶食を行う。)
- Maybe most horrible of all these revelations is that on September 4th, 1943, after John had died, and while Tonky and Wanly were still undergoing forced starvation, a public memorial service was held at the zoo to mourn the deaths of the three elephants. I repeat: this was while Tonky and Wanly were still starving nearby.
These three elephants may have been wonderful animals. It’s sad that they ended up as ancillary victims of a human war. But the true tragedy of this story is not simply in their deaths, but in how they died, in the equivocating, cruel methods used to kill them. It is completely unexplained in the story, and both of the resources that I found, why the elephants were simply not shot. Would this not have been more satisfactory, both to the army and the zookeepers? Excuses are made in the diaries of the zoo director Fukuda, that the noise of the gunshots would “scare” the population. But, was this not the intended effect? To “open the people’s eyes” to the hard realities of war?
Due to the textbook’s simplicity and gross inaccuracy, the true, complicated nature of this story as a piece of history, and its moral dimensions of human cruelty, are skirted and warped into a sentimental and dangerously simplified platitude on war and peace. This whitewashed version of history does not belong in an nationally approved curriculum. It certainly has no place in an English textbook.
If you use this textbook, and are asked to model-read or deal with this story in class, make sure your students know the whole story. Help them be critical thinkers. Help them ask questions about this story and about their own history. Help them understand not only the story in English, but the critical and skeptical stance that one should bring to any encounter with a new text.
- Above is a simple presentation that I made and showed to our 3rd grade students after their final reading of the story. I would recommend showing it to them after their first reading, and then have them reconsider the story with this new information in their subsequent readings.
- It seems that this story book is somewhat well known in American education circles as well, in the book Faithful Elephants by Yukio Tsuchiya. There seem to be lesson plans for this on the internet for the elementary school level. I would suggest finding another story that deals with Japan and the war.
This is a lesson I designed and did several years ago and have done a few times since. I introduce Calvin and Hobbes, explain who the main characters are, and then give the students a handout with a few comics on the front. We read the comics together and I try to make sure they understand the meaning. Of course, the explanation sort of removes the humor from them, but that’s OK, because the fun part comes next.
On the back of each sheet, there is a different comic printed, one for each pair of students in class. The comic has had the wording removed from the speech bubbles, so their goal is to assess the comic, try to figure out what is happening or what the author intended, and then either write something they think fits in the bubbles, or take it in a different direction. Sometimes students ask if they can add drawings to the comic, or extra bubbles not originally there. I say sure, why not.
Here are some selections of comics that last year’s 3rd graders at Saroma Junior High did (9th graders). They’re gone and graduated now, but I’ve kept the comics they wrote, and per a request from a friend, I’ve scanned the best ones: (Images link to larger versions, and are browsable using the arrows)
Now that the days have become cooler, the heaters are regularly turned on in the classrooms at my junior high school. Since the thermostat controls are all centrally located in the teachers room, we have to call down there and ask someone to flick the switch to off for our particular classroom. Often, when this becomes necessary in one of my English classes, I will call down to the room and sort of surprise whoever answers by making my request in English. Sometimes the teacher will make a student do this. Today, for the first time, I was in the teachers’ room while this happened. The English teacher who teaches 1st grade English, and prefers not to teach with me, had a student call down and ask. The nurse answered and freaked out, handing the phone off to the secretary who by now is used to that sort of thing.
So, now that this has become a “thing” at my school, I wonder why I’m so bored of it. In principle, the idea of using English in a way that even ever so slightly breaks the typical bounds of the classroom environment (all the way downstairs!) is a good thing. However, I don’t expect that they will start requiring class leaders to use English when asking about preparations for the next day’s class, or conducting daily business in their homerooms. Why? It’s just too hard. In principle, this is a good thing, but I can’t help but feel that it is treated as a novelty (Oh my god, he’s speaking English, on the phone, to a teacher!) and not as something that everyone should be able to do.
One of the major failings of English education in Japan, by no fault necessarily of the teachers, is its inability to demonstrate the use of English in a normal or casual way, to show students that “yes, this is something that you can do too.” The common criticism is that there is not enough emphasis on a “communicative” approach to teaching. While valid, there is a more encompassing criticism in regard to the attitude taken toward English: It’s always set up as a sort of performance, rarely given utility or any plausible application. Obviously, that can be hard to do at the junior high level, given the balance required by testing and national standards and the simple rigor of the bukatsu-laden schoolday. Which is why my jaded view of these phone calls puzzles me. I should be embracing it as a tiny step toward my view of an ideal introduction of English. But I find myself rolling my eyes at it because I see it becoming another way English is treated as an other, as something else that exists in another world beyond the consciousness of everyday life.
This January I had the privilege to escort six students from Saroma, Japan, to my hometown of Palmer, Alaska. Saroma Town employs me as their Assistant English Teacher, one of the requirements for the position being roots in Palmer. I grew up in Palmer and graduated from Palmer High School in 2002, eventually finding my way to Saroma in 2008 after a degree in linguistics and a one-year stint on the JET Programme in Niigata.
It’s now my third year in Saroma. Every year, there are mutual exchanges at both the junior high and high school level, and each year I have helped to prepare the students for their experience. This year the exchange groups went to Colony Middle School and Palmer High School. We hold about 10 to 12 predeparture classes at the Town Hall, teaching basic English conversation skills, helping to prepare them for cultural differences, and teaching about Alaska and Palmer in general. They also spend a large portion of the time creating a poster presentation in English about some aspect of Saroma or Japan that they then present while in Palmer.
This year, as in past years, the groups from the high school and the junior high were both small, so it was decided that they would be sent together. This year, though, I was lucky enough to be chosen as one of the chaperones for the group. As such, I had the pleasure and privilege of not only preparing the students for the exchange, but supporting them and guiding them while in Palmer. To tell you the truth, I was not entirely sure of myself in this regard. While there was another chaperone from the high school, I still felt responsible for the six students who were travelling, particularly the junior high students, whose maturity levels were quite different from the two high school students (who had both been to Palmer once before).
However, I somehow managed to get everyone from Hokkaido to Palmer and back, without any serious problems, crying fits, bouts of homesickness, huge misunderstandings, illnesses or disastrous scheduling errors. All of the students and the other chaperone seemed to have a fantastic time in Palmer, and didn’t seem too concerned about getting back to Japan. I too enjoyed myself, although I was busier than I could have expected, playing sort of a double-agent role as ambassador both from and to Palmer and Saroma. Let’s just say that the students were not the only participants on this trip who experienced new challenges and developed new skills. ♦
Greeted upon arrival with a handmade sign in Anchorage by CMS Principal McMahon.
The view from CMS on our first day in town. The winds were brutal, but the skies were clear.
A welcome poster for the JHS group.
Giving my Saroma presentation to a community group in Palmer.
Everyone on the freezing bus to Talkeetna!
Our mature and dependable high school contingent.
Arrival at Pioneer Peak Elementary with SJHS students and Hatcher.
Singing do-re-mi to the kindergarten at Pioneer Peak.
The group of volunteers who do so much to support the exchange programs.
Lastly, a video of us ice skating at the Palmer Ice Arena. I think everyone makes an appearance.
I’ve been putting off writing for a while, not feeling any inspiration, feeling tired, feeling over or underwhelmed with daily life. I still have to talk about Remington’s visit, my Okinawa trip, my general life here in Saroma. I’ll get there.
Yesterday at Wakasa Elementary, I taught 3rd and 4th graders how to say “What’s this?” I brought a box full of random things from my house to show the students, and asked “What’s this?” for each. I planned to make each object progressively more difficult and weird, so my mystery box contained an old pool ball from 3719 Mason, a stuffed walrus, a sock, a green monkey glove, a Russian militia hat, and my 8-inch tall figurine of Captain Jean-Luc Picard. When I pulled the Captain out of the box, one of the five students instantly yelled “YES WE CAN!” Barack Obama is practically a celebrity here, with this phrase being the hayari kotoba or buzzword of the day. I have students nearly every day saying it at every opportunity. I even helped two junior high students write a skit in which they meet President Obama. It goes something like this:
It’s been snowing here as life is taking hold of me once again. An update is daunting yet necessary if this blog is to continue and I figure it should. I was talking to John, the ALT in Kamiyubetsu about blogging this week (his blog is linked to at the right in the blogroll) and I was musing that I simply didn’t have any more piercing observations about Japan at this point. I’ve been here for a year and almost a half and there are still things I love and things I hate, but they’re kind of just part of the days that go by. I’ve been less than excited to write about the same old things, making observations that I’m not particularly qualified to make.
However, this morning is one of those lit by the extraordinary power of new snow, the kind that breathes fresh energy into old attitudes and makes an ordinary living room seem like home. I’ve also got a lot to talk about. Last night Dad asked me what was new in my life, and I had to think for a while before answering:
Partly to further purpose of cultural education and internationalization, and partly as an outlet for my electoral frustrations, I had the 3rd graders at Saroma Junior High vote for the US President yesterday. The 14-15 year old rural northern Japan demographic could turn this election. First, I handed them an information sheet, which introduced the two candidates as well as new words. Party, Age, Family, Hobbies, Slogan. I left out policy matters. Even if the English wasn’t too difficult, I doubted they would much care. Then they did a fill-in-the-blank paragraph using the new words they had learned. After, we spent 15 minutes watching some campaign commercials from both sides (stupid ones from both sides too), a few minutes of the third debate, a few minutes of the SNL parody of the third debate, and an “Obama Quest” Daily Show clip.
Then they voted. Across both third grade classes, Obama won in a landslide: 49 votes to 11 for John McCain. That’s a 64-point win! I think we can all feel relieved from this new poll that Obama is in good position for victory.
In addition to their vote, I asked for a short explanation of their decision. Essentially an exit poll. McCain wins on experience, and Obama wins on youth and coolness, with McCain’s age a big deciding factor for this demographic. Here are some of the more interesting ones:
I’ve been here in Saroma almost a week now. I am an Assistant English Teacher for the Saroma Town Board of Education as part of the Sister City relationship with my hometown of Palmer, Alaska. It’s a pretty sweet deal, and everything is going well enough, but I somehow haven’t found the right adjustment knobs and levers for my brain and emotions, respectively. The schedule is a lot harder to get used to than I feel it should be. I have to relearn everything about the house and town. It’s almost as if I still haven’t allowed myself to mentally reenter this life place. I really cranked down my Japan thoughts while in America. Like shut it off. I think maybe cultural transition is like a coal-fired power plant: it takes a lot of time to start up and is really hard to make similes with.
I have a nice house though. I’ve been spending a lot of time sleeping in it.
It’s as if my battery knew when I could go home.