Japanese netizens took to X, formerly known as Twitter, this week after heatstroke resulting from this summer’s extreme heat took the life of an eight-year-old student in the country’s northmost Hokkaido region–––a cool summer getaway spot that Japanese used to escape to in summers. This summer, not even Hokkaido could escape the heat.
Tuesday’s death turned up the heat in the conflict between citizens and public officials over concerns that Hokkaido’s schools widely lack air conditioning, making every mayor and Board of Education (BOE) sweat their pants.
The Date incident
On August 22nd in Date City (伊達市) of Japan’s northmost Hokkaido region, an eight-year-old second grader at Date Elementary School fell ill with heatstroke and lost consciousness.
“A student of ours suddenly collapsed after gym class and is unconscious,” reported a schoolteacher to the emergency operator around noon, when it was 33.5 degrees Celsius in Date City.
According to Date City’s BOE, the girl student had attended an outdoor P.E. class that spanned over the morning’s 3rd and 4th periods. When class ended, the female student was walking from the schoolyard to the building when she suddenly collapsed.
She passed away at the hospital soon after.
Hokkaido: no school due to
This summer has been hot in Hokkaido, where until recently people in Japan would take refuge during summer holidays to get away from the mainland’s heat.
Tuesday was especially hot. The Pacific anticyclone that hovered over Hokkaido made the region bathe in blinding sunlight and bake in scorching heat. Teineyamaguchi in Sapporo City recorded its hottest day of the year at 35.1 degrees Celsius.
The extreme heat has prompted some elementary schools in Sapporo City to send students home earlier in the day to protect them from heatstroke. In Kitami City, seventeen schools canceled classes on the 23rd ahead of time because of anticipated hot weather.
Mainland struggles too
High temperatures are also disrupting school schedules on the mainland.
Earlier on July 18th, Nagoya City’s BOE issued an order to all city schools to cancel P.E. classes after a report came out that temperatures were going to rocket up to 38 degrees Celsius. The order affected 415 schools including elementary, middle, and high schools.
The BOE ordered that all the following be canceled: P.E. classes in places without air conditioning, club activities that involve exercise, and swimming classes. This was the first time that the BOE issued the cancellation of P.E. classes in the city’s schools.
On August 4th, Mie Prefecture’s BOE issued an order to public high schools and schools for students with special needs to cancel club activities if temperatures rise above 31 degrees Celsius. The order came in response to a fatal case of heatstroke that occurred recently in Yamagata Prefecture when a middle school student passed away after attending club activities.
No air conditioning
The situation in Hokkaido’s schools is particularly more dire than that of the mainland in that most schools don’t have air conditioning.
Only 16.5% of elementary and middle schools have air conditioning in Hokkaido. The figure for high schools is worse–––0.7%, according to an official report by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology last September.
A short distance away in Aomori, the prefecture directly below Hokkaido, the figures rise sharply. 71.3% of Aomori’s elementary and middle schools have air conditioning. For high schools, the figure is 100%.
The national average for air conditioning installation in elementary and middle schools is 95.7%. For high schools, it is 94.1%.
297 of Sapporo City’s elementary and middle schools began mapping out plans to install air conditioners in the 2022 school year, according to Sapporo City’s BOE.
Only a third of schools have installed air conditioners. Others are still in the planning stages or undergoing construction to accommodate new machines.
Meanwhile, the city is using portable coolers. However, only one-fourth of citywide classrooms have been able to use them due to the city’s budget and distribution issues.
Sapporo City Mayor Katsuhiro Akimoto says “I want to install air conditioners as soon as possible but it also depends on government subsidies. We will gradually increase the number of portable coolers so that classroom lessons are not affected (by the heat).”
“I can’t stand it”
After the incident in Date City, the very next day, 26 schools in Hokkaido canceled classes, and 271 sent students home earlier.
Children at Yonesato Elementary School in Sapporo City’s Shiroishi Ward told interviewers, “I can’t stand it. Our school doesn’t have coolers. I want coolers.”
A school principal spoke to reporters about the portable coolers.
“They don’t really cool down the entire room. It’s more like cold air blows out and cools the space around the machine…During breaktime, children gather around the machine to cool down.”
Not a priority
On July 11th, an anonymous citizen of Hakodate City wrote to officials about their concerns regarding the lack of air conditioning in schools. The citizen acknowledged that summers in Hokkaido are shorter and that in previous years it wouldn’t get so hot that opening windows and using fans had sufficed. “Does the city really think that having children sitting in classrooms, that might as well be sauna rooms, carry water bottles protects their health?”
The city replied on July 20th.
“Although we have not installed air conditioners in the city’s elementary and middle schools’ classrooms, we have each school use fans, open their windows, ensure students drink water, rest, and wear appropriate clothing during activities.”
The city also replied that approximately one-fourth of all school buildings are over forty years old and are in dire need of reconstruction, which is a higher priority than the installation of air conditioners.
It would require about 600 billion yen to retrofit all 400,000 classrooms at elementary and middle schools nationwide, according to Masayoshi Takeuchi, a professor of architecture and environmental design at Tohoku University of Art and Design.
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