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Thursday, July 4, 2002

The land of the early rising, and setting, sun

Not only is the government's persistent refusal to adopt daylight-savings time a waste of natural light, it's plain no fun

The issue of daylight-saving time is back in the news.

This time it was in reference to the Kyoto Protocol, which obliges a number of countries, Japan included, to cut their emissions of greenhouse gases. Daylight-saving time (DST) was mentioned as one of several proposals under something called the "Kyoto Objective Achievement Plan," aimed at getting Japan to achieve its objectives under the protocol.

In case you're unfamiliar with the idea, DST, or summer time as its called in Europe, involves setting the clock forward by an hour around the start of spring and then putting it back at the beginning of autumn. The result is that we have an extra hour of sunlight during our waking hours during those months, thereby lowering our reliance on artificial light.

One result is conserved energy. The Kyoto agreement is not the first time the government has bandied the idea about. Every several years the suggestion is floated. Yet after all the debate, the proposal ends up going nowhere and we continue to spend our spring and summer evenings in the dark.

Consequently, Japan is one of the very few industrialized countries in the world without the energy-saving measure.

But it hasn't always been like this. For a short period after the end of the war, Japan had DST after it was introduced by the U.S. occupation forces in 1948. However, just as Gen. MacArthur and his crew were pulling out of the country, one of the first things the new Japanese government did was pull the plug on the measure. A public opinion poll at the time reportedly showed that a slim majority were opposed to DST. But attitudes on the issue have reversed over the past half century. A slim majority of Japanese now wants to see DST's introduction, according to government polls in recent years. In fact, a survey nearly a year ago showed that while a shade over half the respondents were in favor of the idea, fewer than a third were opposed. Among the latter group, the major complaints were perceived hassles, confusion, adverse health effects and dubious energy-saving benefits.

But the most implacable opponents have been farmers. Apparently, they like the extra sunlight in the morning to dry their fields and an early sunset so they can finish work by a reasonable hour.

Which would be a good enough reason to reject DST -- were it not for the fact the number of Japanese who work in farming and primary industries has dwindled to 5 percent of the population.

The other 95 percent of us, meanwhile, are forced to put with dark dinner times while sunlight floods our bedrooms for several hours before we actually have to get up.

Similarly, the reasons cited by the anti-DST respondents in the opinion polls are wholly convincing.

The nay-sayers seem to be under the general impression that there is something inherently unnatural about manipulating time -- that it throws the human body out of synch. I would point out that the unnatural element in all this are clocks, which were, let's remember, invented by man and not a product of nature.

Way back when, people's waking hours were dictated by the rising and setting of the sun. I doubt that many of our cave-dwelling ancestors chose to sleep for a good four or so hours after sunrise.

Nevertheless, all the open debate on DST fails to mention one simple fact -- having extra sunlight in summer is jolly good fun. In many countries with DST, the bright spring and summer evenings have become an important part of the lifestyle.

Families head outdoors for strolls, kids go to soccer and baseball practice, and tennis courts and golf courses are at their busiest. Japan needs to join the club. If not for the environmental reasons, then simply for the beautiful human life of its citizens.

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