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Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2002


Chilling in the houses of the rising damp

Waking up on winter mornings always reminds me of how primitive life in Japan can be.

The first thing I do is dash across the frigid floor of my apartment to crank up the kerosene heater. Then it's back to bed to wait for the room to warm to a civilized level. Only then can I put on a couple of layers of woolly clothes before eating breakfast, huddled within inches of the heater's hot grill.

It's a primordial-like experience that many dwellers of Japanese houses and apartments can relate to. That's because homes here have long been poorly equipped to keep their occupants warm, despite the long, cold winters in most Japanese regions.

It seems that when it comes to building houses, all the innovation and well-thought-out technology the Japanese are famous for goes right out the window -- along with all the heat. The only heating device in my 10-year-old apartment, for instance, is an air-conditioner installed in the ceiling, the worst place to put a heater given the well-known fact that hot air rises.

Not that the warm air would stick around. My apartment, like most others, lacks proper insulation.

So why has it always been a hassle to produce and keep heat in Japanese houses and apartments? To discover the answer to that, says Masakazu Shio, a housing architect at Sekisui Chemical Co., one of Japan's largest house manufacturers, one must delve into the distant past.

As for the lack of insulation, Shio told me that for the ancient Japanese, ventilation was key. So much so that it could even be a matter of life and death.

"In the old days, all the space wasn't heated. Instead, there was a hearth to provide heat in the middle of the room and only localized areas were heated," he explained. "It was a sitting and tatami culture, in which everyone in the home would sit directly on the ground. This went way back, before the Edo Period. People would sit around the fire to get themselves warm."

Which, of course, Westerners also used to do in ancient times, although their sitting was on chairs.

Yet the big difference, according to Shio, was the chimney. Unlike in Europe, ancient Japanese homes never had such a large, central vent designed to funnel out all the smoke and other nasty fumes from coal fires. Instead, there were several vents, usually in the ceiling, a fair distance from the fires.

Therefore, and with good reason, Japanese have long felt safest in houses that were drafty.

"In this way of thinking, there was no scope for the use of insulation materials," Shio says.

An official at the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport, which monitors and regulates the housing industry, reckons that another reason involves traditional building methods.

"Houses used to be built in a particular way, with their pillars showing. It seems that with this kind of construction, it would impossible to put in insulation," he told me.

Regarding central heating, the tradition of localized heating also partly explains why this system, so common in nearly all developed countries with cold winters, is an alien concept here. Another factor is some of the highest utility charges in the world.

Yet, for a complete explanation, it's again necessary to recall ancient history. Shio says that when electricity and imported gas were introduced during the last century, the national mindset remained rooted in the past. People merely adapted the new energy sources to the ancient technology.

Just look at the kotatsu, a heated table with a coverlet attached. Back when they first appeared in the 17th century, kotatsu used coal burning in a pot as a heat source. Yet the advent of electricity did not bring about the demise of this ancient device; it was merely redesigned to accommodate an electric bulb or element as a heat source. The electric kotatsu continues to be one of the most common space heaters to this day.

But perhaps not for much longer. For the first time ever in Japan, insulation, central heating systems and double-glazed windows are now on the verge of becoming commonplace, according to Shio.

One major factor is the recent awareness of the need to conserve energy, brought about by such developments as the Kyoto Protocol, which obliges countries to cut greenhouse gas emissions. For the first time ever in Japan, authorities, architects and home buyers are linking well-insulated dwellings to environmental friendliness.

"The central government has recently come to see insulation as standard way of conserving energy, and it is seeking higher levels of efficiency in this area," Shio says.

The ministry official confirmed as much. Yet when asked what percentage of newly constructed houses and apartments are fully insulated, he said his ministry is in the dark, having never done research on the matter.

"We think the data is necessary, but we really don't know the extent of insulation use in new homes," he told me.

Yet it's clear that the rate of use of insulation and central heating is rising significantly, even if no one knows the exact number.

For many of us, that could mean that getting up on winter mornings will no longer be such a nasty ordeal.

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