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Sunday, Oct. 18, 2009
Power for all the people
Special to The Japan Times
The all-electric home craze sweeping Japan with its typhoon of talking bathtubs, full-service toilets and flameless kitchens may finally have met its match.
His name is Yasuyuki Fujimura, and he is the founder of Atelier Non-Electric, an inventors' workshop in Tochigi Prefecture.
Since 2000, the 65-year-old doctor of engineering has been cooking up designs for water purifiers, dehumidifiers and lighting systems that don't require electricity to run on. He's also been zealously propounding the idea that it's time for people in Japan — and the rest of the world — to rethink their fondness for appliances that offer convenience and comfort at the cost of environmental health and, he says, true happiness.
On a crisp morning recently, Fujimura sat in front of a wall of glass windows in his airy living room, gazed out at the one-hectare property where he's lived and worked since 2007, and elaborated on his plans for a "Non-Electric Park" on his grounds. This, he hopes, will include an electricity-free cafe, a bathhouse fueled by sunlight and firewood, and a passive- solar house. The latter, instead of using active heating and cooling systems, will be designed and sited to let in lots of sunlight in winter but not in summer.
"I want people to realize that this other option also exists. I want them to see a new culture and a new lifestyle. That's why I came here," says the soft-spoken Fujimura, who is dressed in an earth-tone polo shirt, old work pants and pointy-toed slippers brought back from a trip to take non-electric refrigerators to the vast grasslands of Mongolia.
Japan is the world's fourth-largest electricity consumer, generating 29 percent of that power from nuclear plants and 60 percent from oil, natural gas and coal — the last three all major contributors to global warming. Appliances account for more than a third of home electricity consumption and, despite recent improvements in efficiency, home energy use has risen by more than 50 percent since 1973, according to data from the Energy Conservation Center of Japan.
But Fujimura insists that's not his primary concern.
"We should choose what's enjoyable for us. I chose non-electric technology because I like it. The environmental benefits are just a by-product," he says.
As if to prove the point, Fujimura smiles constantly as he talks — which, with his white hair and beard, makes him look like a Japanese version of Santa Claus. Behind that jolly appearance, however, lies an unshakable self- confidence and a mind overflowing with ideas that might appear at first glance to be ridiculously simple — but then so completely logical that it seems amazing they weren't put into practice years ago.
Take that project in Mongolia, whose roots Fujimura says go back to an episode of millennial reflection that redirected his path in life. Looking back at a century of raging industrial and economic development, and forward to a looming environmental apocalypse, he says he decided in 2000 that his last great goal in life was to offer alternative technologies to developing countries.
"In Japan, switching to something slightly less convenient might seem pointless, but in developing countries this technology is extremely meaningful," says Fujimura, adding that he by no means rejects the use of electricity altogether.
So, in pursuit of his aim, he went to China and Brazil offering his services as an inventor — but he got no takers. Then in 2003, he was approached with a request from impoverished Mongolian nomads who longed for the televisions, electric lights and fridges that many of their urbanized compatriots now enjoy. On the plains, though, low population density and the people's nomadic lifestyle means a conventional electric system is unfeasible, while solar panels are prohibitively expensive.
So Fujimura designed, pro bono, what would become his flagship non-electric device: a simple insulated box buried partway underground and lined with old plastic bottles. The bottles are filled with water, which acts as a sponge to draw heat from items in the box (usually mutton). At night, the outer lid of the box is opened, allowing a black inner lid to radiate stored heat to the cold, dark universe (the same principle that cools the Earth at night). Fujimura says the box maintains a temperature of about 8°C even on a 35° day. A local maker now sells the refrigerators. The price: two sheep.
The Mongolia project garnered Fujimura widespread media coverage, and requests for technological assistance soon began to flow in from countries including Nigeria and Brazil.
In Japan, Fujimura also runs a nationwide inventors' training workshop, and has authored books on invention and non-electric technology. Among them is 2004's "Tanoshii Hidenka" ("Enjoyable Non-electric Life"; Yosensha), in which he expounds his own brand of inconvenient truth: Japanese rice cookers alone boil away 2.4 nuclear reactors' worth of electricity each year; vacuum cleaners consume 20 million units of electric energy for each unit of dust-sucking work they achieve; and electric lights expend more than 80 percent of the power they consume as heat, not light.
As yet, Fujimura may not have figured out the perfect non-electric answer to these problems, but his basic point hits home: Isn't there a better way?
No matter how offbeat this inventor may seem to some, however, he once worked deep in the world of conventional technology. After gaining a PhD in engineering from Osaka University in 1973, he spent 11 years in the thermal- engineering lab of Komatsu, a major construction-equipment company, rising to be a chief researcher there.
Spurred by his young son's asthma, Fujimura eventually left Komatsu and invented one of the earliest ionic air purifiers, called Clear Veil (that same son signed on as vice president of Atelier Non-Electric this spring, leaving a job at megacorporation General Electric). In 1984, Fujimura founded Kankyo Co. to market the Clear Veil and develop other health-related products.
Clear Veil's sales eventually topped 2 1/2 million units, turning the inventor's dream of commercial success into a reality. In 1998, however, the company went bankrupt and was re-established under the Corporate Reorganization Law with new management. The next year, Japan's Fair Trade Commission ruled that advertisements by Kankyo claiming their air purifiers were better dust-collectors than competing brands — and that they were effective against airborne viruses — were misleading. Kankyo, for its part, maintained that a researcher with close ties to a competing company had been involved in the tests on which the government based its decision. Fujimura now has no connection with Kankyo Co.
That affair earned Fujimura some detractors, but it did little to dampen the enthusiasm of those attracted by his message of "an enjoyable non-electric life." Fujimura says a 2003 feature in the Asahi Shimbun newspaper, for instance, generated a surprising number of calls from people within Japan interested in purchasing a non-electric refrigerator.
"Not everyone is satisfied with our recent desperate pursuit of convenience and economic growth. There's actually a lot of people who think something is wrong with the picture," he says.
Unfortunately for those eager potential customers, the non-electric refrigerator is not ideally suited to the wet Japanese climate, since humidity and cloudy skies interfere with the ability of objects to radiate heat at night. But on a mildly warm day, the upgraded model that stands beside Fujimura's home felt to be around 15°C, though the beer inside was at a quite drinkable temperature. Consequently, he's scrapped plans to market the appliance in Japan, though he may yet organize a build-it-yourself workshop.
Fujimura has plenty of other ideas in the works, however, such as a non-electric vacuum cleaner and a hand-cranked rice huller that he hopes will reduce the electricity burden of the national staple.
And remember those televisions and light bulbs that the Mongolian nomads requested? Fujimura has rigged up a ¥50,000 machine to refurbish the discarded car batteries that litter the Mongolian steppes. The batteries can then be fixed to a small cart that's pulled behind a galloping horse, turning a generator that recharges them. Fujimura says a two-hour sprint provides enough energy to light a yurt and power a small TV for one week.
Granted, it's not electricity-free technology, but it does no environmental harm, turns garbage into a resource — and may help make nomadic life a more attractive option for the 21st century.