Land of the Scorching Sun – Part 1

The people of Eastern Japan are now in a constant struggle between resisting the fierce heat and trying to conserve energy. As I mentioned earlier, this makes for a very dangerous summer. So far we have not had summer blackouts, as the region has been quite successful in minimizing energy usage since the earthquake. However, we have come extremely close to exceeding the energy usage limit, and there are now scores of people being treated for heat-related illnesses. The humidity is as intense as ever, and people are still debating about whether certain drastic measures ought to be taken in order to further conserve power.

Boiling Under the Sun

Making sacrifices

Last year was the hottest summer ever on record in Japan, and there was a large number of people, especially the elderly, who died from heatstroke. This year, for better or for worse, the first day over 30°C was a month later than last year. The three most often-referenced cities in the news for their blistering heat are Kumagaya, Tatebayashi, and Maebashi. For at least this summer, I am working not in Tokyo but right in the middle of that triangle of hot-zones. In other words, I’m in the hottest part of Japan, at the hottest time of the year. I also seem to have been the last person in Japan to start using air conditioning, and I didn’t realize that everyone was putting their AC at 28° or less (I was always at 30°); but I did so in order to save power for the people who are suffering because of the March disasters. In fact, everyone’s trying to preserve electricity, and it’s changing the way some business is being done here.

Early after the crisis, escalators were largely off limits (tape barred people from entering), traffic lights around Tokyo were shut off, and the neon orgy of lights and signs was not as bright as usual. There was often someone directing traffic in busy streets instead of using lights, and people simply made do with what they had. In one survey on opinions of energy conservation, about 3000 respondents mostly agreed that arcades, pachinko parlors, and neon signboards should reduce their energy usage. Many also agreed that escalators in train stations should be reduced – which shouldn’t be too unreasonable, considering how often they’re pointlessly running in less busy stations without anyone using them. It was sights like these that made people realize they had to make sacrifices.

Fans of keepin’ cool

Despite the intense heat that greets passengers as they wait on the platform, however, the insides of trains are actually cooled well. By the end of a long commute, it’s normal for a passenger to feel cold, as I usually am when I commute between Tokyo and the “triangle of hell” in which I now reside. In general, hospitals, trains, and facilities considered substantial for economic and social activities were basically spared from the initial power-saving goals the government had put in place months ago. So what was cut? Vending machines, one of the biggest energy drainers.

Not those kinds of vending machines…

In case you don’t know, Japan is famous for its abundance of vending machines. They can be found around the corner, on streets, in random back alleys, in train stations, and pretty much anywhere else someone may walk by. In fact, it would be fair to say: Where other countries have garbage cans, Japan has vending machines. Shutting them off is a nightmare for manufacturers, but they simply use too much power.

NHK reported a few months ago that in one year, two vending machines use as much power as the average home. Think of electronics that people don’t unplug, including cell-phone chargers, modems, computers, as well as the regular consumption throughout the year. Clearly, wasting power on vending machines is simply not worth it. Also, they’re apparently so well insulated that they only drop a single degree in the summer every hour. A spokesman for the drink distributing company Suntory said “Only very sensitive people will be able to notice the change in temperature.” This is consistent with a shop owner in Tokyo who said that no customers have complained about the drinks from the machines in front of his shop being too warm.

Fifteen years ago, vending machines started shutting off their cooling functions between 13:00-16:00 in order to reduce usage during peak hours. This year, cooling functions have stayed off for up to seven hours. This caused some backlash from people who thought they are important for people to stay hydrated, cooled, refreshed, or otherwise happy. To paint a picture: outside the apartment were I spent my last year, there is a vending machine 10 seconds away. I have never used it. I’d rather walk three minutes down the road to the nearest convenience store to select from a wider variety of drinks. This is actually characteristic of Japan; there are so many stores around that we just don’t need all of these vending machines to run all the time.

Tokyo governor and worn catcher’s mitt Shintaro Ishihara – colloquially known as “Toby” on this blog – has received a lot of slack from beverage companies, because he made a strong point on cutting back on vending machines. Since the earthquake, this is virtually the only things I totally agree with Toby on. If you have never been to Japan, it’s hard to imagine how much waste there is regarding these machines. The Japan Vending Machine Manufacturers Association says that there are almost 6 million vending machines in Japan – one for every 23 people. Ultimately, what we need more than anything are things  to keep us cool, which don’t require a substantial amount of electricity – fans.

Nowhere is the demand for electric fans stronger than in the most devastated regions of Eastern Japan. One store in Kamaishi City, Iwate Prefecture reported 4 times the amount of fans sold in May this year, compared to last year. In all of Iwate, the demand was so high that many people have been put on waiting lists. As the Daily Yomiuri reports, “Nationwide, the sales volume of electric fans in April and May was 2.38 times that for the same period last year, according to the Japan Electrical Manufacturers’ Association.”

Beating the Heat by Changing Behaviour

Dressing for Summer

About 5 years ago, the government of Japan began a campaign to help workers deal with the heat, and they called it “cool biz.” This is essentially an excuse to wear something light and not too hot, while staying semi-professional looking. This year, the government launched the “super cool biz” look, which takes it a step further. It also sponsored a fashion show demonstrating the appropriate attire for business settings. No tie, no suit, no long sleeves, or perhaps a tie and light jacket with shirts… or, evidently, just balls-out Tokyo street fashion…

This guy could be your new accountant

Unfortunately, it seems that for job-hunting season, university and college students are still trying to make the best possible first impressions by wearing their full suits to job interviews. In fact, the government has made an unprecedented plea to the corporate sector to be lenient on job interviewees who wear less to interviews, but it’s unclear if they are being taken seriously. If a recent job fair was any indication – in which only 8 of the 22 participating companies worse casual clothing, despite the temperature in Tokyo reaching almost 33°C  – it’s probably not making a difference. One official from a pharmaceutical company remarked: “Basically, our salespeople wear suits. We want students to understand the atmosphere.”

Fewer events to lighten the load

The peak consumption hours in the summer are between 13:00 and 16:00, so people have specifically been asked to conserve during that time. However, outside of summer, the peak time is around 18:00-20:00 on weekdays, when people come home from work. In fact, this was the time-frame focused on in March, after the earthquake happened. Regardless, nighttime usage has once again become a consideration for power conservation. For example, pro baseball’s night games in March were delayed so that they would not need to use so much electricity on lighting. Also, municipalities in the Tokyo area have opted not to hold at least nine scheduled fireworks events, because of fears that public transportation and lighting would  take too much of a toll on the power grid.

Kyushu University energy researcher Michihisa Koyama says that canceling events or decreased lighting at night is not necessary, and even that it may be detrimental. Koyama worries that reducing lights at night may result in more crimes. This may be worrying too much, but it raises the question about how much to conserve, which will be explored in Part 2

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One Response to Land of the Scorching Sun – Part 1

  1. Pingback: Scorching sun | Merlinsquest

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