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Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2012

THE ZEIT GIST

A winter's tale: cold homes, poor lives in wealthy Japan

The country is still rich, so why do the Japanese people live like they're not?


By GIANNI SIMONE

Question: What am I doing outside my home at 6 a.m. with a gas can, a pump, and stalactites under my nose?

News photo
Winter wonderland: The children thaw out after coming in from the cold in the "tactically heated" Simone household. GIANNI SIMONE

Answer: I'm swearing.

I know, this is only half the answer, but at zero degrees Celsius my brain has the tendency to freeze up. Give me a minute to thaw out and I'll elaborate later . . .

According to some people, Japan is already living in the future. I beg to differ. While Japan is a technological giant and our rabbit-hutch houses are bursting with the latest electronic gadgets, the quality of life in this country could be much better if we enjoyed the same basic services people take for granted in the West. Even in Italy — where I come from — the seemingly never-ending recession rarely prevents many people from enjoying rather high living standards. After all, the average Italian lives in a well-built house, with plenty of space to stretch out and relax, and plenty of free time to actually enjoy it.

Japan, on the other hand, may still be the world's No. 3 economic power, but all too often its people seem to lead relatively poor lives, spending their whole day stressing out on the job, getting drunk afterwards, then going back to houses so small that the washing machine has to sit on the balcony or outside the front door.

Take house heating: In Italy, most houses have central heating; here, so-called "space heating" is the norm. This does not mean we are living in the Space Age, but rather the Stone Age.

Space heating — or, as I prefer to call it, "tactical heating" — entails warming up only the room where you spend most of the time — i.e. the living room — while leaving the rest of the house out in the cold. This, of course, cannot but cause some collateral damage, namely: 1) When you go to bed and slide under the ice-cold sheets, you suffer hypothermic shock and risk dying of exposure (anybody remember the movie "The Red Tent"?); and 2) When you have to answer the call of nature in the middle of the night, you have to haul on a coat.

Now you know why the Japanese had to invent the WC with a heated seat.

On the plus side, the entrance "hall" is so cold that it can be used (and, in many cases, is used) as a refrigerator to store fruit, vegetables and the like.

Tactical heating used to be organized around the infamous kotatsu, a piece of furniture that only the Japanese — those masters of thrift and simplicity — could have dreamt up.

As I'm sure most people know, a kotatsu is basically a low table with a small electric heater screwed to its underside and topped with a quilt. On cold winter evenings, denizens of the house would slip their legs under the table, cover their lower bodies with the quilt, and spend the night watching TV, eating tangerines and getting drunk. And, more often than not, someone would end up dozing off with their upper body exposed, only to wake up in the morning with nasal stalactites, a nasty cold and a throbbing head.

The kotatsu is still going strong among the Japanese (and those weird foreigners who either can't afford something better or have a mistaken idea of what "embracing Japan" actually means) but there are now trendier (though only slightly better) ways to keep warm.

Take the air conditioner, the weapon of choice for the majority of households in their battle against both the summer heat and winter chill. As well as consuming an awful lot of electricity, these devices are criminally inefficient in our barely insulated homes, turn our throats to sandpaper, and reduce those with dust allergies to sniveling wrecks.

Another popular heating tool among the horizontally inclined is the electric carpet, a seemingly innocuous beast that lulls its prey into a warm (probably drunk) torpor while lightly toasting them on one side with 130-160 milligauss of electromagnetic waves.

According to architectural adviser Keiji Ashizawa (interviewed on this subject by Japan Times columnist Jean Snow for ubertrendy website Neojaponisme), "Only in Hokkaido is there such a thing as the Law on Cold Residences, and the Government Housing Loan Corp. gives financial assistance to homes protected against the cold. They say that people from Hokkaido catch colds when they come to Tokyo, because they traditionally live in houses insulated and warmed through central heating."

For those who don't live in Hokkaido, the most effective piece of technology out there seems to be the kerosene heater — which, if you think about it, is the sensible choice if you live in a highly inflammable wooden prefab house. Which brings me neatly back to my story . . .

So what the hell am I doing outside my home at six in the morning? Why, I'm filling the gas can, of course!

"And why didn't you do it the day before?" I'm sure you will ask.

Alright, let's check the videotape . . .

22:00, the day before: The stove goes beep-beep and the magic number 50 flashes on the screen, which means there's only 50 minutes' worth of kerosene left. I've just come back home from work and I'm dead tired. So I look at the clock, look at my wife, then look at the stove and say: "Let's switch this off and use the electric stove, so we have enough fuel for tomorrow morning." The Boss says nothing, which means she doesn't despise my idea.

5:45, today: I'm woken up by the Boss screaming and railing against Buddha, Confucius and, especially, me.

"I told you to put the kerosene in!!!"

"???"

"Now only 10 minutes are left . . . You know this stove sometimes pulls such tricks."

"Bloody tricks!" says I.

"OK, you go back to sleep," says She. "I'll manage somehow. . ."

This is obviously a trap. I used to fall for it, but not anymore. As soon as I hear those words I jump out of bed, scramble to get dressed and head out to fill the gas can.

Early to bed, early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise . . . and stink of kerosene.

Not only does the Japanese house often fail to protect us from the cold, but the place itself can even be dangerous for our health — and I'm not talking about earthquakes. Many buildings, in fact, are affected by so-called sick house syndrome. A "sick house" can trigger health problems such as allergies, atopic dermatitis and respiratory problems due to the emission of synthetic chemical materials (e.g. formaldehyde, asbestos) that until a few years ago were used liberally in construction.

Sick building syndrome, as it is also known, is not only a Japanese problem, but it seems that abroad the health hazards are mainly due to natural causes, such as mold, algae, bacteria, etc., while in Japan the problems tend to be man-made.

Another thing that leaves me scratching my head are those huge gas cylinders chained to the side of my house. As I live in Kanagawa, I don't enjoy the relative convenience of Tokyo Gas and have to rely on propane. This means that each family gets a couple of long, fat cylinders the moment they move into a new house.

These cylinders are literally chained to the wall, checked periodically and replaced once they run empty. The gas guy assured me they are safe, and that even if they exploded our house would not be damaged. Still, they look like a couple of bombs to me.

But what really left me speechless the first time I saw it was communal sewer cleaning. I'm sure (I hope) that the many of you lucky enough to live in less backward areas have never heard about it, but in some places (mine included) you are expected to join your neighbors once a year to get down and dirty in the local sewer. Not only is this a disgusting thing to have to do, but something surely stinks if all the local taxes we pay don't at least cover this most basic of services.

And how about uchimizu, the summer custom of sprinkling water in the street to cool the area? My friends back in Italy saw it on YouTube and asked me why they don't just go around with a tanker truck fitted with sprinklers.

Of course they missed its real meaning, the amused obāsan who lives near my house told me. Why, such customs as uchimizu and sewer cleaning bring out our national values, as they combine utilitarian, courteous and dutiful ends. Take that, you selfish gaijin!

Returning to heating, after years of trying to survive the Japanese winter I've found a couple of simple ways to keep my blood from freezing solid while deploying tactical heating in the home. The first is putting on several layers of clothes until I begin to resemble a less cute version of Bibendum, the Michelin Man. I usually opt for a T-shirt/wool underwear/pajama/tracksuit/hooded sweatshirt combo. Plus two pairs of socks, of course.

Another winner is putting an insulating sheet — the one that looks like thick aluminum foil — in your bed between the sheets and the mattress. That really works miracles, I guarantee.

Now I can finally enjoy reading in bed again — although my hands still go numb after a while.

My favorite books recently are Antony Beevor's histories, especially "Stalingrad" and its sequel, "Berlin: The Downfall 1945." Reading about all those frostbitten soldiers crossing the steppes at 30 degrees below helps to convince me that here in Japan we don't have it so bad after all.

Light Gist offers a humorous take on life in Japan on the last Tuesday of the month. Zeit Gist returns next week. Send all your comments on this issue and story ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp


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