Education in an Information Age
- as seen in Japan
September 24, 1997
I have decided to maintain a written account of this visit to Japan. I have come to Japan for attending the UNESCO-APEID Seminar on "Teacher Education for Effective Use of New Information Media in Schools."
I was seen off by my wife, Asha, at the International Air Terminal of the Indira Gandhi International Airport. I reached the airport at 9:40 p.m. well in time to board the United Airlines flight for Hong Kong scheduled to leave at
00:05 a.m. on 23 September. At the United Airlines counter, I was stopped by one of their ground staff, a girl, who in a hush-hush voice said, "You may have to wait for sometime for checking in." She would not reveal any particular reason for the delay. It was left for me to decipher whether the flight was overloaded or had been hijacked. The mystery was solved when another ground staff mentioned that the flight to Hong Kong would be delayed by 4 1/2 hours as the aircraft had not arrived. Its implications on me were that I would miss my connecting flight to Osaka. She offered to reschedule the onward bookings. I readily agreed as I did not have much choice. I however insisted that my hosts in Japan may be informed of the change in my arrival time so that revised instructions for me to reach Higashi-Hiroshima from the Kansai-Osaka airport could be worked out by them. The last part of the journey involved travelling in Japanese trains to cover in about three and half hours a distance of about 400 km.
After whiling away more than six hours by shifting positions in inconvenient seats at the airport's departure lounge I boarded the flight around 4.30 a.m.. There were many empty seats in the plane. It made stretching of limbs relatively easy. At 11.30 a.m., local time, on 23 September the flight landed in Hong Kong. This city state, the last of the colonial legacies, had become a part of the Peoples Republic of China on 30th June of this year. The city had a frightening look of a concrete jungle, as only a monotonous sight of multi-storey buildings was visible in whichever direction one looked. The Airport was crowded and was full of Chinese faces.
In the transit/transfer hall, while I was waiting for my turn to check-in for the flight to Osaka, I heard loud shouting and saw a sight quite common in India when irate passengers try to elicit help from the airlines' staff on account of flight delays or routing problems. A young Chinese man was speaking at a pitch and level of loudness I thought only we are capable of doing. The departure halls of the Hong Kong airport had the atmosphere typical of waiting rooms of public transport in Asia. Some passengers were eating packed meals, others were animatedly talking to each other and a few had found comfort of sleep in spite of the prevailing din and the general chaos.
On boarding the Japan Airlines flight I felt relieved to find myself back in a situation of order and normal group behaviour. I had difficulty in keeping eyes open, though I wanted to see the Hong Kong city from air. I dozed off soon after the flight was air borne. I could not eat the food served in the flight. It was difficult for me to believe that twenty eight years ago I had survived on the Japanese food for a year. When the flight landed at the Kansai-Osaka Airport the time at destination flashed on the video screen in the plane was 5.50 p.m.. I had no reasons to doubt that the time shown needed any further corrections and set my watch at what I thought would be the local time in Japan. This led me into a series of difficulties and many an anxious moments.
After going through the immigration formalities I was handed the Fax message from my hosts giving the revised train routings. With this contact I felt confident in reaching Higashi-Hiroshima the same evening, though it involved at least two train transfers. Getting the train bookings at the Osaka Airport was smooth as the booking clerk spoke English. I scribbled down carefully on my tickets the coach number, the seat number and the platform details of the train to Shin-Osaka and of the bullet-train from Shin-Osaka to Higashi-Hiroshima. According to my watch there was an hour for my train to leave for Shin-Osaka. Instead of moving to the platform, I decided to eat in the waiting lounge my packed meal I had brought with me from India. After enjoying light refreshments, I moved to the platform and had a cold coffee from a vending machine. I got suspicious of something having gone wrong when I found a train ready to leave ahead of the time given on my ticket. I checked with some persons, who were also waiting, whether the train about to leave was the one I had my ticket for. The person realised that the train I had the bookings had already left, and in polite gestures said something in Japanese. It took the wind out of me because now the time was 8:20 p.m. and I did not have the vaguest notion how I would travel now a distance of 400 km that evening itself to reach Higahsi-Hiroshima. I became nervous at the imminent confusion that awaited me. As I was a gaijin (foreigner), who are generally tolerated in Japan in spite of their inability to communicate in the local language and awkward situations they put themselves in, I decided to face the train conductor with my tickets. He was horrified at my predicament. I now did not have a journey ticket for his train and also I would have missed my onward connection to Higashi-Hiroshima, a small station where not all bullet trains stop. From the Shin-Osaka station even by fast trains that stopped at Higashi-Hiroshima, which is 35 km before Hiroshima, it required a journey time of over 2 hour and l5 minute. I was sure I would miss the last direct train. I was given a seat but I was extremely uneasy. I did not have money. The looming prospect of getting stranded at some train station in Japan in the middle of the night produced goose-pimples in me. Fortunately, a person who knew some English was sitting next to me. He took interest in my unenviable situation and offered to find some way-out for me to reach Higashi-Hiroshima. The detailed instructions sent by Professor Nakayama had several alternative possibilities including a plan for boarding from Okayama the train I was going to miss on account of my late arrival in Shin-Osaka. It required getting new bookings on a super-fast train called Nozomi leaving Shin Osaka at 21:28 p.m.. This was cutting too fine as I would reach Shin-Osaka only at 21:10 p.m.. The gentleman introduced himself as someone in the film line and volunteered to help me in getting new rail bookings on arrival at the Shin-Osaka station. The Nozomi was a fully reserved train. This unexpected help was providential as my hope for reaching Higashi-Hiroshima were rapidly evaporating. The new bookings on Nozomi were done on payment of additional Yen 400. I wished goodbye to the good Samaritan and moved on to the platform number 22 for boarding the train in its coach No. 14. That was not so difficult as trains in Japan stop at the dotted marks on platforms and at times precise enough to set one's watch.
Looking out from the window of the Shinkansen (bullet train), though it was past 9:30 p.m., I saw unending habitation dotted with commercial activities. There were glittering neon lights all along the route. I had the impression that the State of Kerala was the perfect example of uninterrupted habitations stretching over endless lengths, but what I saw presented a fearsome image of what the earth might become should the population explosion be allowed to continue unabated.
The bullet train was speeding away like a plane while taking off. My confidence gradually restored as the possibility of getting on to the train I had missed appeared realisable. I got off at Okayama. I saw the sign for the train Hikari expected to arrive in five minutes at the adjoining platform. I walked down to a gathering of passengers waiting to board Hikari, as I now had to travel unreserved. On boarding the Hikari I gathered courage to find a telephone in the train to inform Nakayama that I would reach Higashi-Hiroshima at the time and by the train he had made arrangements for meeting me. Getting a telephone card from a vending machine involved insertion of a Yen 1000 note. On dialing the telephone number given in the Fax message, I was most happy to hear the words 'Nakayama desu'. The telephone number was of Nakayama's office and the time then was 10:30 p.m.. As the train came to halt at the Higashi-Hiroshima station I saw a male face and a female face at the platform. Both persons greeted me by bowing towards me. My ordeal was over. The lesson to be learnt from my experience is that on arrival in a foreign country the first thing to do is to set one's watch with the local time and reconfirm it at the earliest opportunity .
I was transported to the Hiroshima International Plaza. By the midnight of 23rd September I was comfortably settled in Japan in the sanctuary of a pre-arranged accommodation. I slept soon after setting my morning alarm for 7 a.m.. But I woke up at 9:30 a.m. and got ready to meet my hosts. The venue of the Seminar for the first three days was in the International Plaza itself. It is used as a hostel for foreign visitors and for holding international programmes by the Hiroshima University.
The afternoon was spent in introductions and in familiarisation with the hosts. The schedule of the engagements for the seminar were shared with the participants. I have been made one of the two deputy chairpersons for the seminar, the other is Mr Ibrahim of Malaysia. The view looking out from the conference room is of a lush green beautiful hill. Higashi-Hiroshima has the distinction of being the host to the new campus of the Hiroshima University. I took a stroll to explore the neighbourhood of the International Plaza and to find a grocery store for getting milk, sugar and bread. Within a kilometer I reached a supermarket and purchased my groceries. In the evening a reception was hosted by the Hiroshima University. There I had a long conversation with. Nakayama. It was a pleasant surprise to find that he had done his Ph.D. studies at the Banaras Hindu University and had been to Mysore several times, when I was also there. He is a geographer. He expressed interest in tying up with me on a collaborative project for arranging Internet in some rural schools in India. Let us see what comes out of it.