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Sunday, July 24, 2011

BIG IN JAPAN

Setsuden and the magic number 28


Japan's summer has started off with a bang, weather-wise.

In what seems like a repeat of last year's record-breaking heat, the first couple of weeks of July were marked by a heatwave throughout many parts of Japan — daily high temperatures in the mid-30s with the lows rarely dipping below 25 degrees Celcius. The only respite has been the torrential rain and powerful winds unleashed by typhoon No. 6.

The nation's setsuden (electricity conservation) plan could hardly have come at a worse time. With the nuclear power plant in Fukushima crippled by a triple reactor meltdown and nuke plants elsewhere going off line, overheated citizens and organizations are being urged to cut their power use.

The effects are being felt daily by nearly all of us. Millions of office workers, for example, are toiling away in offices cooled (if that's the right word) at the recommended temperature of 28 degrees Celcius.

Why 28? What has made this the iconic number of setsuden? Sunday Mainichi (July 24) points out that the figure is written in stone, in the form of the Industrial Safety and Health Act and the Act on Maintenance on the Sanitation of Buildings. Air conditioning in offices, say directives issued under those laws, should be set in a range from 17 C to no higher than, yes, 28 C.

Those directives in turn are based on a 1965 report compiled by academics specializing in public hygiene, a Health Ministry official tells the magazine. "The range of temperatures permissible for humans goes from 28 degrees and lower," the report indicated.

Westerners, however, may well take issue with that conclusion. As Toshiharu Ikaga, professor at the Faculty of Science and Technology at Keio University, explains: "The original standard temperature for buildings in Japan has been 26 degrees, which is high compared to the West, where the figure is around 24 degrees. Twenty-eight is pushing it for office operations (assuming you're Japanese, of course), and 29 degrees is over the limit."

What's more, Dr. Andreas Stange, CEO of TUV SUD Japan, an international company that specializes in technical testing and certification, views the current 28-degree rule a "palliative measure," unless businesses and other organizations closely monitor and confirm the effectiveness of their energy consumption.

Energy management, he told The Japan Times, should involve the constant monitoring and analysis of power consumption, the data of which should then serve as the basis of a "comprehensive policy on energy conservation," as opposed to simply mandating what temperature thermostats should be set at.

"We all should take this opportunity (setsuden) to review energy efficiency and power consumption at their essential level. Then we can figure out ways of saving energy by refraining from measures that affect productivity," Dr. Stange says.

In any case, plenty of public servants and others are being forced to work in unreasonably hot conditions, a survey by Shukan Post (July 22/29) suggests. The aim of the survey — conducted on the sweltering afternoon of July 5, when it hit 31 C in Tokyo — was to determine whether the authorities who are telling us to forsake strong air conditioning are not just talking the talk, but also walking the walk.

Thermometer in hand, the Shukan Post reporter headed to several public office buildings to measure the ambient temperatures in their reception areas. At the building housing the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, the reading taken inside the first-floor lobby registered a steamy 29.4 degrees.

That ministry, together with the Environment Ministry — it should be pointed out — are the central government's leading setsuden promoters. Speaking of which, the latter ministry is also doing its bit, keeping its lobby at a sweat-inducing 28.9 degrees.

But it's not all doom and gloom. Just before summer got under way, speculation was rife that the energy shortage would scupper all sorts of large-scale entertainment in Kanto and northern Japan. That hasn't happened to any great extent.

Take professional baseball. On the evening of July 1, a reporter from the MSN-Sankei website (July 17) was on hand to watch the Tokyo Giants take on the Chunichi Dragons — under blazing electric lights. Staff at the Tokyo Dome distributed hand fans to the crowd bearing messages exhorting people to cut down on their electricity use.

Dome officials, who don't seem to see the irony in this, claim they're able to cut their reliance on the power grid by 37-39 percent from normal. How? By the recent installation of five of its own power generators and setting the Dome's inside temperature at, yes, 28 degrees.

Another venue determined that the show must go on is the Tokyo City Keiba, a horse racing stadium in Shinagawa Ward in central Tokyo. After voluntarily suspending its naitā (night races) during the spring, the stadium management this summer decided to resume the action, but by cutting its power use by a purported 35 percent.

The measures include switching off nearly half the 430,000 light bulbs that normally illuminate the grounds.

Not everyone is happy that grand events like baseball and horse racing are going ahead while individuals feel compelled to spend their domestic and working lives with little or no air conditioning amid the tropical weather, says MSN-Sankei. A spokesperson at Tokyo City Keiba, however, defends its moves, saying, "We want to bring some excitement to Japan but while also engaging in energy conservation."

Sankei offers further defense by noting that as long as fans are out gambling or watching sports, their home power consumption will be cut. Summer is, after all, the season of leisure.

So people can have their cake and eat it too, but they're also going to have to sweat for it — as thermostats nationwide remain fixed at the upper threshold of misery: 28 degrees Celsius.



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