education Japan JET Middle School Tokyo

Depressing Elephants

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.
festivals Hokkaido Japan JET Saroma

Of Typhoons, Pumpkins and Hornets

It was an exciting weekend. The Saroma Pumpkin Festival took place, as it does every year on the first weekend of September. Every night throughout the week I stopped by the snow removal center to help with the town hall’s float. This year’s theme was One Piece, one of the most popular manga and anime franchises of all time. In traditional fashion, the float was ambitious, a full size pirate ship and a whole host of elaborate costumes spanning nearly all the major characters in the series.


The completed float on Saturday afternoon, before the rain.

Talk frequently turned toward the weather. Typhoon 12 was slowy approaching southwest Japan, and we had no idea what effect it would have on our festival. The main event, the Cinderella Dream Parade, was to take place on Saturday at 6pm, so our fingers were crossed for clear weather for at least that evening. On Friday, while the typhoon was still centered more than 1,000 miles to the south, near Shikoku, Hokkaido was hit by massive rainbands from the outer edge of the storm. Saroma got four inches of rain in a 12 hour period – other areas got much, much more. By Saturday morning, the weather had cleared up, and with the typhoon still a thousand kilometers to the south, moving at a glacial 10 kph, we were all very optimistic.


The Saroma River on Friday afternoon.

Not only was this the weekend of the Pumpkin Festival, it was also the Eastern Welcome Party, which we carefully planned to occur coincidentally with the festival. HAJET and I received permission from Saroma for 50 ALTs to camp in the main park in Saroma near the gymnasium, and the Town Hall parade entry were excited to have several dozen ALTs walking with them behind the float, handing out balloons and participating in the fun.

But then, after a blustery, halfway sunny, spritzy day full of fast moving scud and fleeting suckerholes, dark clouds appeared on the western horizon. It was around 5pm, and from there, our plans basically laid down and died. The pumpkin parade was cancelled, and rescheduled to take place inside the Townspeople Center. That meant we couldn’t use our float. Some people seriously considered not performing at all so that we could reuse our float in next year’s parade. Meanwhile, 50 ALTs were standing around in a quickly darkening unlit BBQ house, already several beers into the evening, two rainy kilometers away from a festival with no parade. Back at my house were Yoshie and her parents. For a few hours, I ran back and forth between the park, the snow removal center, and home. I managed to get the lowdown on the festival plans (parade: not happening; fireworks: maybe happening; band: happening inside), change into my suit and costume, very poorly learn the group dance performance routine, beg and borrow the generator from the float and some lights, and haul them down to the BBQ house to save the foreigners from the inky black of night. All of this in time to make it back in time to dance arrhythmically, catch the kickass fireworks, down a half dozen beers, introduce Yoshie to all the important and great people I work with, high-five three dozen students, and make it back to the house to share some craft beer with Yoshie’s father and blow their minds with a Google Earth iPad tour of Palmer. It had turned out to be a crazy, but remarkably fun evening. We didn’t get to bed until well after midnight, an unusual occurrence for Yoshie’s parents.


My costume was a naval officer from the anime series, who enforces law and order on the pirate-filled seas.  The costume consisted of my regular suit under a borrowed labcoat from the Saroma Clinic with some cleverly applied yellow and blue tape for insignia.  The back of the coat said “正義” or “Justice.”


Saroma’s performance consists of attractice preschool teachers who know how to dance, and then the men of the town hall, who remain in the back clapping and swaying in an uncoordinated  manner.

But I wasn’t done yet. I had to go check on the generator at the BBQ house and make sure everyone was still alive. And of course, stay there until 3am smoking cigars and talking American politics with a very savvy Kiwi guy until the crowd of those still awake dwindled to a point where the generator could be shut off, and I could commence to chase my wet reflection home on deserted, drunken streets.

Then, on Sunday morning, I went outside and got stung in the head by a hornet. It hurt like a bitch and a half, and I was a little worried I might be allergic, since the last time I was stung was when I was 7 or 8 and stepped on a bees’ nest in the Palmer woods. Yoshie and her parents insisted I go to the hospital, so Yoshie drove me into Engaru, about 40 minutes away. I couldn’t believe how much my head hurt. The pain just wouldn’t stop. After 30 minutes, we went in to see the doctor. He looked at my head, asked me a few questions, and then said “Ok, we’re going to give you some medicine and put you on an IV.” Not only have I never had an IV before, but I had no idea how you said that in Japanese. So, like an idiot, I said “Okey doke” when he told me that. After I realized, I became more worried about the prospect of getting an intravenous drip for the first time in my life than I was about the darned hornet sting. It’s important to understand that this is an extremely routine and almost blanket treatment in Japanese hospitals. I’ve heard of people heading into the hospital because they feel tired, getting an IV for an hour or so, and heading home feeling pretty good. Well, it turned out to be a pretty enjoyable afternoon with my wife. I got to lie down and watch fluid drain into my arm while hornet pain stabbed through my skull, and in the company of Yoshie, it was actually pretty enjoyable. The whole situation was so unexpected, it became a novelty. She even took a picture of me.


There’s a first time for everything.

After the IV finished (I was very worried about air being inadvertently injected into my artery, so I pressed the call button for the nurse really early) we got some prescription cream for my head and paid the bill. After insurance, the total bill was 2,400 yen, about $30 bucks. The real bonus of the trip, that I can thank the hornet for, is that we grabbed kebabs on the way back out of town.

So, I didn’t get to participate in the parade, my ALT friends didn’t get to participate or enjoy the festival at all, I got stung in the head and missed the whole main day of the festival, but I actually had a pretty great weekend.  And today, Mr. Ikeda from the town hall came out to my house in his bee suit and took out the hornet nest that had been in my shed.



Alaska America JET Saroma

A Ridiculous Trip

Well, not that ridiculous, but at one point I felt such a feeling.  Here’s not what I did, but how I moved.  You judge.

Friday. Saroma to Mombetsu by car, 1 hour.

Saturday. Mombetsu to Sapporo by car. 5 hours.

Sunday and Monday. Sapporo to Tokyo via Tomakomai and Oarai by ferry and bus. 27 hours.

Tuesday. Tokyo to Minneapolis by 747 in business class. 10 hours.

Friday. Minneapolis to Anchorage via Seattle by 737 in first class. 9 hours.

Thursday. Palmer to Fairbanks by car. 6 hours.

Sunday. Fairbanks to Palmer by car. 7 hours.

Monday. Anchorage to Saroma via Taipei, Tokyo and Memanbetsu by 747 and 737 in coach class.  24 hours.

After all this moving around, I felt a real urge to be stationary for a while.  I always feel that way after a long trip, but this time I felt it more seriously.  I’m going to stick myself in the proverbial mud of Saroma.  Come and visit?

elementary English Japan JET Murakami

The Nature of The Goodbye

Today I said goodbye to Kamikaifu Elementary, my very favorite school in Murakami.  Over the past year, I have visited the school 17 times.  This is far less than any other school, but it only has 41 students.  The school was comprehensible, and friendly.  The staff talked to me about interesting things.  No one ever forgot about me during lunchtime.  The vice-principal and I basically became a two-man comedy team.  The children were exceptionally, astonishingly good.  I knew their names.  I knew I was appreciated when I visited this school, so I went the extra mile for them.  With eight staff and 41 students, my efforts could hardly be diluted.  I dressed up as Santa Claus and no one tried to undress me.  I dressed up as The White Rabbit and no one tried to tear off my tail.  I always felt lucky to come to this school, and I think the students are lucky as well.  Huge classes and large grades at large faceless schools turn out average citizens.  There are standouts in every group, but somehow the kids at Kamikaifu all stood out.  It’s hard to explain.

It’s quite hard for me to really smile.  It’s quite hard for me to really cry.  I relish a good cry, because it’s like a rare treat that I cannot willfully order.  Today I came pretty close.  At the end of the 1st and 2nd grade class, I sat down and told them thank you, how much fun I had with them, and that they please do their best after I leave.  They had a gift for me, a yearlong calendar, starting in August.  There are 12 students in the combined class – six first grade and six second grade.  Each student drew a picture for one month of the year.  I almost melted when I realized the simple significance.  The 3rd and 4th graders sang me a song.  It put me in the mood that popular dramas like Lost and the House M.D. do during the closing montage, in which a popular song wafts loudly through crossfades of the characters’ dramatic circumstances.  It was like watching a movie, all of the happy, lively, intelligent young faces that have really brightened my day so many times right there in front of me to reflect on for three whole minutes.

I came to realize today that the Goodbye has a bad name.  Unfairly so.  A well done, proper Goodbye at the right moment can be fulfilling and rewarding.  A Goodbye is a testament to the effort invested in a relationship, in a community, in a friend.  I will have many more to do in the next 20 days; some will be labored, some will be awkward, some will be a relief.  But my last day at Kamikaifu makes up for any of that.


elementary JET Murakami

English Swim Lessons


Funnest day ever!  Me and the 1st and 2nd graders at Senami Elementary School went fishing in the swimming pool today.  We learned the names of things like whales, squid, octopus, starfish, and dolphins, then we imitated them in the water.  Then I tossed about 40 or 50 laminated cards into the water and the students had to “fish” for the type of sea creature that I shouted out.  Then the students who had cards and those who didn’t separated and the cardless kids had to catch those with the cards.


At the end we had a huge game of Marco Polo, which I don’t think the students understood very well, but was nonetheless a lot of screaming fun.


JET Middle School

The Workday

It’s as if my battery knew when I could go home.


JET travel

PNG Departure

In 24 hours, I will be leaving to Papua New Guinea for two weeks.  I won’t have telephone or email contact during that time.  Both of my parents have my emergency contact information, so if there is something urgent, contact them.

I am pretty much prepared.  I have four full bottles of sunscreen, two full bottles of deet bugspray, malaria pills, sunglasses, sandals, hammer, paintbrush, camera, swimsuit, snorkel, goggles, as well as a ridiculously large canvas hat from the women’s department at Jusco. A vague map shows where we will be below:

View Larger Map

JET travel

The Road to Papua New Guinea

The Niigata ALT Charity Musical, Alice in Japan finished yesterday, with two shows back to back in Nakajo and Niigata. It’s somewhat of a relief, having accomplished the run of shows successfully, but it’s also sort of an exciting end, because it means that the trip to Papua New Guinea is now only a week away. I am already taking my malaria medication, and starting the packing process, including a ton of sunscreen and bug dope, snorkel and goggles. I also gathered an enormous amount of school supplies to take down to the village that we will be visiting. Our project this year is to build an elementary school in an area that doesn’t currently have one. We leave from Japan on the 22nd, and return on April 6th. I am looking forward to it immensely. While hopping around as a late rabbit, socializing with other ALTs, and involving myself in the community and in my schools through the musical has been fun, the real hook for me was the Papua New Guinea trip. We will be visiting the Waria Valley, in Morobe Province, on the southeastern coast of Papua New Guinea. The specific tribal area is know as Zia (gee-ah) and this term applies to the people as well as the language. While English is an official language of PNG, so is Tok Pisin, which is used as the primary lingua franca in the country. This common language is necessary in addition to English. According to SIL, Papua New Guinea is linguistically the most complex nation of the world. Over 800 languages are spoken in the country, of which Zia is one. I’m looking forward to experiencing the place and the people and the culture and the geography. I’ll be taking lots of pictures, but you can check out pictures from previous years here.

elementary JET Murakami

Taco Night

I had my supervisor from Senami Elementary, Hiki-sensei, her two children, and two other teachers from Senami over on Thursday night for tacos. Japanese people don’t really have very good knowledge of tacos, and it doesn’t help that tako in Japanese means octopus. The ALTs in town came over too, and we had a great time playing boggle and scrabble, and eating pop rocks, pixy sticks, and peeps. Here’s a photo of Kudo-sensei from Senami Elementary, and Hiki-sensei’s two children with Hannah, the ALT in Kamihayashi-mura.

Taco Craziness

elementary JET

To Mr. Sean Teacher Sensei

My 4th and 5th graders at Iwafune Elementary surprised me yesterday with some very nicely made thank you cards. It was their last class before they become 5th and 6th graders. The teachers, to their credit, encouraged the children to use romaji (roman characters) to write to me, and strangely pepper the messages with English words. Here are some of my favorites.

Syôn Sensei E

senseino osieTe kuLeTa EiGo, TanosikaTTaDesu. LokunenseiDemoYoLoSikuoneGaisimasu.



ぼくは. IlikeEnglish withになりました。

Thank you! シィーユーアゲイン