Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Cutting back in Japan

Japanese apartments. Photo originally from this website.
The Wall Street Journal had a story about a movement in Japan to cut back on electricity usage--and they aren't going by half.  They're doing this not just by turning off lights, using compact fluorescent bulbs, and getting appliances that are energy efficient.  They're lowering the capacity of their circuit breakers, so if they go over a certain amount of amps, a fuse blows.  It's energy conservation by voluntary enforcement.

One family dropped using an electric toothbrush, their washing machine, their vacuum cleaner, and 24-inch television. Their electric bill is now about $13 a month. The movement, called Amepere Down, was started by a Canadian English teacher living in Hokkaido. It gained popularity after the Fukushima accident.

I found this almost bemusing.  Not because I disagree with what the Japanese are doing--far from it--but because I remember living there and thinking that in a lot of ways, the typical Japanese lifestyle took up a lot less resource space than my (even somewhat simple) life in the United States did.  When I first read this article, I wondered what in the heck the Japanese were going to cut.

Homes in Japan tend to be small.  Unless you're fairly well-to-do, you won't have your own bedroom.  People sleep on futons on the floor and hang them to air out the next day (or fold them up and put them in their closets).  These are not the "California style" futons we have here in North America; they are fairly lightweight, yet comfortable sleeping pads and comforters.  Unless you live in Hokkaido or norther Honshu, you don't typically have central heat.  You may have a propane heater you could hook up (my friend's parents in Yokohama had that) or you may have an electric space heater (I had that--and I suppose if I was going to amp down I wouldn't use it).  It didn't typically get below freezing.  I felt cold there in the winter, but I got schooled quite quickly on what cold really is when I came back to Boston.  (In some homes, the bathtubs did have units that kept the water hot because people washed quite thoroughly before going into the bath.  You did this because you didn't drain the tub when you were done--you covered it to keep the heat in and got out so that other people in your family could wash and then enjoy the hot bath.  Going into a hot bath was a great way to relax and to warm up on a cold day.)

I lived in homes that had washing machines--in fact, it's quite typical for every apartment to have one.  But dryers are rare.  The washing machines are smaller and they have a strong spin cycle, so the clothes are just damp when you take them out.  And the vast majority of houses and apartments have balconies--not to hang out on (it's sticky sticky hot in Japan in the summer), but to hang your clothes out to finish drying and to air out your futons.  (This is why I prefer to hang my clothes to dry to this day--they actually last longer.  All that lint in your dryer? Is from your clothes.  Air dry them and they don't shrink, pill, fade, or fall prey to weakened fibers.)

There were ways that Japan seemed to use more energy than I thought Americans did--they tended to have the newest, most flash gadgets and despite the extensive public transportation system and the very heavy use most people gave it, there was also a lot of automobile traffic.  Most cities--even smaller cities--have a love affair with neon and bright lights.  The Namba section of Osaka was lit up so brightly with neon and lights and video screens at night that it was like being out in daylight.  (I used to think I was a city girl until I lived in Osaka.  Then I realized I was a country bumpkin.)  However, the overall individual lifestyle was pretty modest.

Given that, I think it's pretty admirable that there's a movement of people to use less--and to sort of enforce it by getting lower amp loads.  That's. . .well, I guess it's stereotypically Japanese.  THERE WILL BE NO CHEATING! Whereas with me I'd rationalize it and then flip out and run the microwave, hair dryer, TV, and vacuum all at the same time.

Before even doing this, many Japanese households use circuit breaker boxes with 30 amp loads.  In the US, 100 amp loads are common, and now 200 amp loads are becoming a thing.

I'm not saying this to shame people--hi, my name is Pamela, I live in the US, and I have a TV, a microwave, and a lap top that I'm currently writing this blog post on.  I also work 61 miles from home.  I also whine like a little baby when I'm even slightly cold or uncomfortable. So I'm not finger-wagging or finger-pointing by any stretch.

But I do wonder what we could give up.  Right now, people who are amping down in Japan are striving to use the same amount of power as they did in the 1960's (with varying success).  We have so many energy efficient appliances here, we strive to conserve, but then we also have things that suck up a lot of power that have become necessities--or at least ubiquitous.  Flat screen TV's, smart phones, tablets, laptops, etc.  We have more energy sucking gadgets now than even in the 1990's, let alone the 1960's.  Even comparing to the 1980's--cell phones and computers weren't really common things for people to have.

I don't think I could do it the way some folks are in Japan.  But I do wonder what I could live without.


  1. Okay, I could give up the electric toothbrush, the TV and the vacuum cleaner, but not the washing machine! That would set us (and by us, I mean women, as it's mostly women who do the laundry, but not all I concede) back about 100 years. There's no way I'd be doing a family of 5's laundry every week by hand.

    1. Me either, Lili! And I'm single but. . .no thanks! I had put in a snarky comment about how her husband should use his time either helping her wash the clothes or give her massages after she does it instead of watching the 24-inch TV, but I took it out because I am trying NOT to be snarky. Alas. I do believe I just failed, lol.

  2. I could definitely give up my tv but I don't want to give up my cental air! The Japanese lifestyle doesn't appear to be for me at all. I watched a documentary about how many japanese workers basically work themselves to death and get very little time off with their families.

    Interesting post!

    1. Yeah. . .karoshi is definitely a thing, even now, which is too bad. I did see attitudes changing towards working all the time while I was there, but it seems like the behavior doesn't match up with attitudes--I wonder if it's fear of losing jobs replacing the loyalty workers used to feel for their companies (that promised lifetime employment)? Granted, I was there over 13 years ago and so really can't speak with any authority on what it's like currently. . .

  3. I could give up the (boyfriend's) TV without a second thought (more space for my stuff!), but not the washing machine or the vacuum (unless you have no carpets, but then it'll be colder in the rooms anyway). Wouldn't want to give up my computer either, although I'm typing this on the boyfriend's computer because mine's driving me crazy since I spilled tea in it. :(

  4. I noticed this the last time I was in Japan--AC was set on 80+ , my well to do friend still hung clothes up on a line instead of using her fancy dryer (she said she never used the dryer it was only there because it matched the washer), and they never left electric things on unless someone was actually using the computer/lights/etc. I think it is a good lesson for all of us!

  5. A 100 years ago, some women had hired help. Before the advent of washing machines, clothing was worn many times, if not weeks or months before being washed. Also, they did not have as much clothing as we did. Three outfits were a good amount before washing machines. Women were brainwashed into washing clothing often in order to sell washing machines. Women were shamed into overcleaning the house. It's complicated.