Land of the Scorching Sun – Part 2

In part 1, I mentioned, among other things, that 2010 was the hottest year on record for Japan, I now live in the hottest part of Japan, game and entertainment centers have been cut back to help reduce energy usage, and vending machines were a high priority for conservation since March. The government told employers to cut job interviewees some slack for dressing down because of the heat, but it seems that interviewees are still dressing up in suits to make good first impressions, and employers are still expecting them to do so. Maybe the energy specialist who believes that we shouldn’t cancel cultural events (e.g., fireworks displays) in order to conserve power is right, but regardless, it raises this question about conservation: How much is too much?

Conservation Complications

Conservation isn’t easy, but it’s necessary

In the last decade, there have clearly been improvements in air conditioning technology, and companies have done well to implement more efficient energy solutions – such as Tokyu Corp. switching to the more efficient LED lights in their giant QFront building (pictured below) in Shibuya before the earthquake. In 2001, TEPCO’s service area (i.e., Eastern Japan) reached 64.3 million kilowatts on the day of their highest electricity usage. It was July 24, and the temperature reached 38.1C, an absolutely scorching day by anyone’s standards. The peak day last year, July 23, reached 35.7C (remember, 2010 was the hottest year), and only required 60 million kilowatts. This is a significant improvement of over 4 million kilowatts saved. This is pretty impressive considering the amount of power being used in places like Tokyo makes the outdoors that much hotter.

And believe me, Tokyo is hot enough already

And yet, despite our efforts, we came dangerously close to losing power. On June 29, when the temperature was about 35°, TEPCO’s service area almost reached capacity. I remember reading the tweet about it on a train from Shinjuku:

Peak power consumption peaked at 93.2% of capacity for TEPCO’s service area this afternoon, a post-disaster high

Considering that it wasn’t even July, it was fairly alarming – people needed to conserve more. By 14:00 on that day alone, TEPCO’s service area totaled almost 48 million kilowatts. TEPCO and the government were actually prepared to initiate blackouts again if they reached 97%. Luckily, though, we haven’t had such scares since then. Perhaps it was a wake-up call, because we’ve had plenty of similar days since then.

Conservation is necessary, but it’s dangerous

As good as it is to conserve, it puts people at risk. For example, raising the temperature setting in refrigerators would indeed save power, but it would also increase the risk of food poisoning. Unfortunately, it gets worse. After the rainy season ended around two weeks earlier than usual, things started to really heat up. A report by NHK on June 8 mentions that 14 people in Tokyo were treated at hospitals in the first week of June, ranging from a teenager to someone in their 80’s. Three of the patients were in serious condition. The Tokyo Fire Department said that it starts noticing a surge in heatstroke cases whenever the temperature reaches 28°.

To give you a sense of a timeline, the first “extremely hot day” this year was June 22, recorded at 35° in Tatebayashi , Gunma Prefecture – which is, if you remember, one point of the triangle in which I live now. Another report on June 29 from JapanRealTime notes that July 22 beat the 20-year heat record, clocking in at 39.8° in Kumagaya, Saitama Prefecture – another point of the triangle I now call hell home. Around 300 people from Saitama were hospitalized in the last week of July. Still, this number was dwarfed by Aichi Prefecture, who had almost 400 people hospitalized for heatstroke; over 50% of which were at least 65 years old. People over 65 are at greater risk for heatstroke because their bodies contain far less water than their younger counterparts. The amount of water in the body lessens from about 80% in young adults to around 60% for people in their 80’s. Also, older people’s brains are not as good at sensing temperature changes, and they don’t recognize thirst as easily, causing risk of dehydration.

In fact, the heat wave that hit Japan in later June was the hottest many places in Japan had seen in half a century. And as Kyodo reports, the amount of people taken to hospitals by ambulance due to heatstroke in June was three times higher than at the same time last year, suggesting that either this year is even hotter, or that people are tragically saving power at the expense of their health. The Fire and Disaster Management Agency says tallies the total number of such ambulance rides for heat-related symptoms at 6,877, with 15 of those eventually dying. In fact, Kyodo mentions, “On June 29 alone, 1,154 people were transported by ambulance due to heatstroke, with six later dying.”

July didn’t see much better numbers. In the first two and a half weeks of the month, 35 people died from heatstroke, while the number of heat-related victims taken to hospitals by ambulance was 20% higher than last year. It’s not actually clear whether the high numbers are due to energy-saving behaviours, or due to the fact that summer came early this year – in late June instead of early July. Meanwhile, it seems like heatwaves are hitting other parts of the world, such as the U.S., which reported 45°C in some places. Just keep in mind that those numbers don’t take into account the humidity, which makes escaping the heat not as easy as just staying in the shade, especially for an island nation like Japan. This month hasn’t cooled off either. On the 11th, the Daily Yomiuri reported that 41 people had been taken to hospitals in Tokyo for heatstroke, by just 13:00 that day alone.

Suffering in the Devastated Areas

Power Plant Woes

Here’s a sad story.

A man in his 60’s got a job at the waste-disposal facility of the damaged Fukushima #1 nuclear power plant. On May 14, he was working there early in the morning, when he started complaining that he was feeling sick (heart problems, we know now), sometime around 06:30. Unfortunately for him, only one doctor worked there, from 10:00 to 16:00 – and workers can’t be treated outside those hours. He collapsed while wearing a radiation suit, gloves and a mask. Within two hours of his initial complaint, he had been moved to the nuclear workers’ base 20 km away, where there were three doctors, but a lack of sufficient medical supplies. After a cardiac tamponade failed to improve his condition, he was again moved, this time to Iwaki City, 45 km away from the plant, where he was later pronounced dead. It was his second day of work.

Extreme job pressure and deadly heat… not a good combination

His death caused TEPCO to take the treatment of workers more seriously, and some new measures have been taken to increase safety – such as increasing the number of rest stations on-site. According to JapanProbe, spending over 15 minutes in the reactor building is a big risk. This all has nothing to do with the radiation threat, but because of the heat and humidity felt in those full-body suits. It is, as one worker put it, “like wearing a sauna suit.” JapanFocus published an article that emphasized the danger of heat stroke:

Heat stroke […] is the most severe form of heat illness and is likely to cause permanent disability or death. Workers may develop sudden symptoms of altered mental status or lethargy after working in a hot, humid environment. Confusion, irrational behavior, delirium, convulsions, collapse, coma and lack of coordination may occur. […] Early recognition and immediate actions to cool the victim may prevent death and disability.

But while times are tough for plant workers, there are still plenty of issues with the survivors and evacuees of the disaster.

I’ll have a side of insult with that injury

With the sweltering heat, tens of thousands of people living in temporary housing have to deal with fly infestations. They’re buying up bug sprays, flyswatters, and screen doors, among other things. One 72-year old evacuee remarked “Every time I have a meal I have to kill flies with a fly swatter.” By now, the flies are not just a nuisance; they pose very real threats. They have been eating rotten fish and sludge from the tsunami debris, and some flies may also be transmitting a form of E. coli which causes intestinal bleeding. Fortunately, it seems that the fly population has peaked, so their numbers are expected to gradually dwindle.

Also, various news broadcasts are calling today the “end of summer,” which started hours ago with much appreciated rain. Weather reports indicate that there will be rainfall for the rest of the week, and I can’t imagine anyone in Japan complaining after the hot months we just endured. The contrast between yesterday and today is over 10 degrees. In fact, yesterday was the hottest day of the year in Tokyo, recorded in the Nerima ward with 37.2°, even higher than it was in Tatebayashi and Kumagaya.

For now, it just seems as though the weather is the next natural disaster to befall Japan. It’s discouraging to end with such pessimism, but Japan seems to have an endless supply of justified complaints. Three weeks ago, we saw the West coast of Japan urge 300,000 people to evacuate because heavy rainfall – from Korea, where at least 62 people died – caused such overwhelming floods. Hopefully the upcoming rain won’t be a curse, right after a well-deserved sigh of relief.

Still, people living in Kanto don’t have as much to complain about, considering we’re free, mobile, and independent, unlike the almost 100,000 evacuees who must live in shelters, temporary housing, or hotels in Tohoku.

After enduring the past 5 months, I think this poster aptly expresses how we in Eastern Japan feel in the Land of the Scorching Sun.

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