Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Saved from the Flames

Stories in the news about house fires are depressingly frequent in Japan, and it seems as if they usually involve deaths. I don't think that this is due to less reporting of fires that don't result in death or injury; there are plenty of reports of fires that only do property damage, but I get the impression that a disproportionate number of fires are deadly. Since many of the victims are children, it was particularly gratifying to hear about a fire in which all four children survived.

Personally, I think that it was extremely irresponsible of the parents to go out leaving such young children unattended, and that they are very, very fortunate even though they have probably lost most or all of their possessions. I can certainly understand the desire of a couple in their mid-20s to go out together once in a while without the kids. There aren't a lot of places where a young couple can bring along kids aged 2, 3, 5, and 6 and enjoy themselves more than the kids do, even if you ignore the near-certainty that caring for the kids is going to make the outing more of a chore than a joy.

Since this couple went out at 10 in the evening and hadn't returned by midnight when the fire broke out, I think it's likely that they went our for a drink (it seems too late for pachinko, another common reason for leaving children unattended). I don't know anyone in drinking establishments, whether staff or patrons, who can honestly say they like having little kids around. Some people make polite noises and perhaps comment on the kids' cuteness, but I believe that nobody in a bar thinks kids really belong there, and it's absolutely certain that noone thinks the kids are as cute as their parents do...particularly when the kids get bored or tired and start whining, crying, and running around. Only the most oblivious of parents can fail to notice that, really putting a damper on their social life.

In Japan, at least in big cities, getting a baby-sitter isn't generally a viable option for parents who don't have relatives living nearby, either, particularly late into the evening. Adult neighbors typically want neither the responsibility nor the aggravation, and teenagers don't generally have that much free time. There are cultural/social issues with paying non-professionals for such services, too, and with their accepting pay. And obligations incurred must be repaid, one way or another. There's also a certain amount of social stigma attached to leaving one's children with "a stranger"--even a neighbor or friend--even assuming one could find a willing one and wasn't worried about repaying the favor.

So I can understand, but not condone, the desire of the young parents to go out leaving their kids alone but apparently asleep, thinking that they'd be safe by themselves for a few hours.

Unfortunately, Japanese homes aren't that safe, particularly from fire.  There are numerous reasons for this. Small, often cluttered homes that are either built of or filled with flammable material are the rule rather than the exception. Many homes--although well-stocked with electronic gear and appliances--have inadequate power supplies and insufficient or inconveniently placed wall outlets; this leads to lots of extension cords and multiple-plug taps, often stuffed behind or under furniture, and even if there's no short circuit from damaged wires, the heat buildup can cause fires. Particularly in winter, when the humidity in much of Japan is very low, fires tend to start easily and spread quickly. Ventilation tends not to be very good, heaters--especially older ones--are often not particularly safe, and escape routes are rarely wide or unobstructed even if smoke inhalation hasn't already removed escape as an option.

A building fire alarm, and presumably a (still relatively unusual in private homes) smoke detector that triggered it, combined with a neighbor both awake and alert, managed to avert a much greater catastrophe than this fire could have become. The kids were saved from the flames, and I'm very happy to see it. I hope that the news
will motivate at least a few parents to reconsider when they think about leaving their kids alone in the house, even for a short while.


D said...

Leaving kids alone does seem to be accepted or at least tolerated here. I recall several years ago that a young father left his son in the car while he went in to play pachinko (this was very late at night). The boy was later found dead in the nearby sea. The father received a lot of sympathy for what he would have received a criminal trial in some other countries.

Speaking of houses, my wife's parents house was built before the war. The wiring used to scare me to death as it had not been very well done when it was built and had decayed to the point of being dangerous. Plus, like some modern housing, it had too few receptacles and was easily overloaded. I did as much as I could with it, but it needed a complete rewiring. I doubt that it is unusual for older houses.

Balefire said...

I remember that case, and if anything he got even less censure than the parents in some other similar cases (in which the children died of heat stroke, mostly). He even--as you say and as I find inexplicable--got quite a lot of sympathy in the media.

I've lived in some older houses, including a couple that were quite old, indeed, and I can imagine the sort of wiring you're talking about. I'm not terribly impressed with some of the wiring I've seem in new houses, actually; for one thing, it seems that the default for standard outlets is for them to be ungrounded...one has to ask specifically for grounded outlets, and the request may lead to puzzlement if not to downright reluctance from the electrician.