Last weekend, my little suburban town made it to the news for breaking a 120-year snowfall record with 73cm level of snow depth. Maebashi was even mentioned on CNN this morning! Now, this is history.
A before and after comparison of how my front door looked like on Saturday afternoon.
Coming from a tropical country, snowy weather is something that I had never dealt with. Although the snow storm has created many disruptions, it is definitely one of the most memorable experiences I had in Japan.
It started snowing on Friday and my elementary school had to declare an early day off for the safety of the students. I was still very naively excited as my elementary school was transformed into a magical land with snow covering all corners.
How my elementary school looked liked.
On Saturday afternoon, the snow turned to rain and I was startled a few times by the sound of snow chunks falling off from the roof and shaking the whole building. After the rain has ceased, I decided to get out of the apartment to assess the situation. There was also a snowfall two weekends before and a pile of snow had accumulated in front of my apartment door overnight. To my horror, this time round, the pile was so high that I couldn’t open the door. Fortunately, my neighbor, a fellow ALT who lived downstairs, came to help me scoop the snow away.
How the main road in front of our place looked like after the snow storm.
The snow storm caught everyone by surprise and my tiny city government was obviously unprepared for it. Snow ploughs borrowed from Niigata only arrived today, three days after the snow fall, to remove snow on the roads. The roads were jammed with cars stuck and being abandoned. The food supply chain was disrupted and empty shelves were seen in supermarkets with long queues at the cashiers.
After yesterday, I am so good at shoveling snow now!
School was suspended for two days. Yesterday, I walked 1.5hr to get to school and spent the whole day shoveling snow with the teachers.
And after all that shoveling, it was a 1.5 hr walk back home again.
This is the icy path that I took to go home. All I can say is that the pair of boots that I found while tidying the attic last year saved my life. I could never had made it home in one piece without those boots.
Perhaps the biggest lesson I learned from this snow storm is about the importance of good government and leadership in crisis management.
The Japanese government had been criticized for unsatisfactory crisis management during the 3/11 disasters and I felt it first-hand during this snow storm. For one, I am still very perplexed and annoyed by the fact that I had to report to work on Monday when snow depth level was still as high as 40cm. I was told that I could take paid leave and stay at home if it was too dangerous to commute. Taking paid leave to protect myself from getting killed on the way to work? How does that sound?
Gunma has the highest car ownership in Japan and almost everyone drives to work. Cars are pretty affordable and car pooling is not a widespread practice here. Yesterday morning, all I saw on the roads are cars with one driver and it was a long jam on the national route. Most of my teachers took hours to reach the school and it was a total waste of manpower and energy to me. My teachers were angry about reporting to work on Monday but they had to show up for work because they would be guilty for not helping out. Although the logic of this thinking totally doesn’t make sense to me, this is a manifestation of the Japanese work ethic. A young teacher who told me he was sick during the weekend even cycled to work as he felt bad if he didn’t come since he is one of the youngest in the office. 90 percent of the staff showed up even though they had enough paid leave and could had used it to absent themselves. I am still very undecided if I should be impressed by this or think otherwise.
The city government appealed for residents to stay at home and yet people were still reporting to work on Monday as if it was a usual workday because they were obliged to, not because they wanted to. I understand that you need teachers to shovel snow for the students and a whole day of rest would mean huge economic losses for the prefecture. However, It was obvious that the road conditions on Monday were definitely not safe for driving and the sidewalks were too slippery to walk on. Would all this be justified if someone, even if it was only one person had died on the way due to an accident?
That being said, I did see the good side of Japanese unity on Sunday when almost everyone in the neighborhood all came out with their shovels to make way for vehicles to pass through. That was also the only time that I saw all my neighbors talking to each other. I even talked to a few neighbors for the first time. A kind obasan even offered to lend me her shovel when she knew I didn’t had one. Instead of waiting for the government to response, many were shoveling snow outside their houses yesterday for vehicles and commuters to pass through. However, when I offered to help the obasan in return, she declined and told me to take care of my own area instead. And the young couple who stayed beside me didn’t offered to help at all when they saw me and my neighbor scooping snow with our small pails. Well, I guess during a crisis, personal responsibility is the ruling principle.