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Why are Japanese houses so cold? - click opera
February 2010
 
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Tue, Jan. 24th, 2006 11:18 am
Why are Japanese houses so cold?

Well, I'm glad I'm not in Berlin right now. Today's maximum temperature in Berlin is minus 8°C. Here in Osaka it's plus 8°C. There's a palm tree growing in the fire station at the end of the street I'm living on. We had a sprinkling of snow the other night, but mostly it's been extremely mild, usually touching ten degrees during the day.



But despite the fact that it's almost 20 degrees centigrade warmer in Osaka than in Berlin (and let's not even talk about Moscow), I've felt colder here than I ever did in my flat on Wühlischstrasse. That's because German houses have ultra-efficient, heavy duty heating systems, double glazing and insulation. Japanese houses don't. This came home to me most keenly in Hokkaido last year, where, despite kerosene and electric heaters and a denki kaapetto, I could never make my house so warm that I couldn't see my breath. I kept every single layer of clothes on when I was in the house; basically, it was like living outdoors. I even spent one particularly cold weekend camped up in the tiny bathroom, the only place I could conserve heat. For two days I sat on the toilet eating bento dinners, sipping beer from the coin machine across the road, and watching downloaded episodes of Nathan Barley. The kerosene heater turned the place into a sauna, and I kept the bath-tub full of hot water.

I expected the hacking cough I often get in winter to be much worse after two months in that Hokkaido house, but to my surprise it disappeared completely. Apparently living in those conditions was good for me. It certainly doesn't prevent the Japanese from living longer than anyone else in the world. And in the recent cold snap in north Japan, when almost a hundred people died, it was invariably because they fell off their roofs while attempting to clear them of snow, or were buried by collapsing snow-heavy roofs while they slept. These were not hypothermia deaths, deaths due to the cold itself.




The big question (and I've been asking everyone I meet the same thing) is, why is a nation capable of building the world's most advanced and comfortable technology not capable of heating its houses? "When I first came to Japan three years ago, I thought the Japanese were the stupidest people in the world," says Mint Woo, a Korean ad executive quoted in Bill Stonehill's interesting article The Cold and the Kotatsu. Koreans (partly because Korea is much colder than Japan) heat their houses the way the Chinese do; "when a building is being built, hot water pipes are laid in the cement floors of all the rooms. In winter, hot water is piped through them, making a very warm floor."

After talking with lots of people, I've collected a list of reasons why Japanese houses are so cold. None of these reasons is in and of itself sufficient, but together they add up to some sort of explanation.

Japanese houses are built for summer because, thanks to the warming Pacific current, the Japanese winter is short and mostly mild. Also, Japanese have a range of "localised heat" technologies which they (like us canny, mean Scots) prefer to the global heating systems of the West: the kotatsu table, the electric carpet, the heated toilet seat, even hot stick-on patches fuelled by chemical reaction, these provide spots of heat where and when you most need them. Apart from those, the omnipresent air conditioning unit serves as a (rather feeble) heater too. Also, the Japanese spend a lot of time out and about in public. In the public bath-house or the izakaya you can keep warm in company. What's more, the threat of earthquakes makes the Japanese build rather flimsy, throw-away houses.



But my favourite explanation is a religious-aesthetic one: the Japanese are extremely attuned to the seasons, thanks to their ancient agrarian national religion of Shinto. When it's winter, you should know it's winter. Don't walk around in a T-shirt pretending it's summer; it should feel cold. No wonder they go so crazy with joy when the first blossom arrives.

60CommentReply


(Anonymous)
Tue, Jan. 24th, 2006 02:51 am (UTC)

You've hit upon the greatest mystery in modern Japan.

Your explanations make sense, somewhat. From what I've heard though, people who live in relatively new houses in the mostly cold regions - Hokkaido, Aomori - do have central heating. I think rich people here can and do buy themselves out of the Four Seasons lifestyle.

Also, you do see kids in Harajuku in the middle of summer dressed in head-to-toe wool punk gear, so they clearly haven't learned the Shinto thing yet.

My pet theory has always been that the construction industry in Japan is fundamentally corrupt and cost-cutting. The traditional way of building houses came about before the idea of modern insulation existed. The construction industry - totally non-competitive - has had no reason to invest in these new building methods, because they don't have to. Consumers have no power to force them to upgrade.

I can't imagine there is an explicit demand from the public that they leave out all energy saving devices. Central heating may be one thing, but always having the heater on can be a tremendous waste of energy. A very pro-environment house would at least have massive insulation, no?

Marxy


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Jan. 24th, 2006 03:08 am (UTC)

I'm not so much of an Alex Kerr-ite as to believe that a corrupt construction industry could somehow ride roughshod over all consumer demands for something like insulation. No, I think this is a cultural thing, something coming from the consumers themselves. Aside from the Shinto angle I mentioned, there's also a strong streak of Stoicism running through Japanese culture; suffering builds character, and what doesn't kill me makes me stronger.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Jan. 24th, 2006 03:09 am (UTC)

You have given me the best kind of warm glow, Caitlin! Better than central heating!


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cerulicante
cerulicante
cerulicante
Tue, Jan. 24th, 2006 03:34 am (UTC)

The Japs don't have insulation because it's cheaper and more profitable for the construction cartels to make flimsy shacks and charge premium prices for them. Japanese homes are NOT built for summer; they're like ovens during the day and they're miserable, muggy steamrooms at night.

This is one area where Japan is just...STUPID. STUPID STUPID STUPID. They might as well head over to Africa to check out the latest in mud hut construction. Ever seen what the walls of a lot of houses are made of? It's some sort of straw wattle.



FANTASTIC.


Next time I go back, I'm living in a concrete apartment building.


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(Anonymous)
Sun, Mar. 12th, 2006 09:25 pm (UTC)
Sounds like your the stupid one

First off World War II is over and Japanese is the correct word not "Jap", unless you are racist.

I have spent many nights in a Japanese home without heat and it is true it is very cold even with extra blankets. My wife and her family are Japanese if you must know. My wife lives with me in America and has become accustomed to using heat in the winter and dreads visiting her home in the winter.


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mckibillo
mckibillo
Tue, Jan. 24th, 2006 03:57 am (UTC)

I live in Takayama in Gifu prefecture, but after this winter... screw this, we're heading down Tokyo way. I understand the explanation that houses here would be built for the summer... but up here where there is now at least a meter of snow on the ground it makes absolutely NO sense whatsoever. It's just unfathomable...

But, yes, I think that it has to do with this notion that you should suffer. It's where the anti-life, anti-materialist dogma of Buddhism smacks head on into the sybaritic Shintoism that you so love.


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nato_dakke
nate
Tue, Jan. 24th, 2006 09:12 am (UTC)

I know the feeling. Aomori saw near-record snowfalls last year. By the end of the season I was thanking my lucky stars that I wouldn't have to go through that again. This year it's a hell of a lot colder, windier, and snowier. But I'm putting it behind me in august, and hightailing it to the big city.


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sparkligbeatnic
sparkligbeatnic
Tue, Jan. 24th, 2006 05:28 am (UTC)

I have continued to enjoy the localized approach to keeping (partially) warm since my first visit to Japan.

It has much to do with the feeling of being warm and cold in different parts of the body at the same time. I can feel winter's chill and, simultaneously, the local heat makes me reminds me of the comforts of civilization. Were I to live in an thermally isolated house, I would distance myself not only from nature, but also lose this palpable reminder of the benefits of civilization.

Moreover, I've always enjoyed the bracing stimulating feel of cold air. The presence of local heat means this pleasure doesn't require excessive stoicism on my part. Indeed, local heat amplifies my enjoyment of
cold and vice-versa.

Some Shinto practices involve bathing in extremely cold water or exposing the body to extreme weather on mountain tops. I've seen an interesting speculative theory about these forms of training in a book called The Looking Glass God by former Kyoto resident, Nahum Stiskin. Roughly speaking these practices are interpreted as a way of directly experiencing the interplay of polar forces, within the framework of one's own body.

Another positive feature of Japan's locally heated breezy architecture is simply that I get my own supply of fresh air, and don't have to share the recycled, processed air with everyone else as I would have to in a globally heated, hermetically sealed building.

Judging from some recent trends in housing, local heating is something that may be on the decline in Japan. I'll be sad to see it go.


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nato_dakke
nate
Tue, Jan. 24th, 2006 05:55 am (UTC)

that's not the worst of it. Up here in aomori, plenty of my friends live in older houses without built-in ventilation for a kerosene heater.

The advice of the government authorities and heater manufacturers is to use the heater with the window open. no shit. with the window open.

btw, sparklingbeatnic, you don't live anywhere cold, do you? 8 degrees = refreshing, -3 = painful... and it robs you of your ability to type messages on a keitai.


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sparkligbeatnic
sparkligbeatnic
Tue, Jan. 24th, 2006 06:02 am (UTC)

The advice of the government authorities and heater manufacturers is to use the heater with the window open. no shit. with the window open.

Well burning consumes oxygen, so that's really good advice. Kerosene fumes aren't too great for the brain either, though lack of oxygen is a real killer.

Yup I doubt I'd want a breezy house in Takayama, though presumably with a good local heating system that could perhaps be fine. I won't speculate since I've only visited places like that and not lived in them.

The Kyoto weather forecast tells me that today's high is 5C while the low is -2C.


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cityramica
cityramica
cityramica
Tue, Jan. 24th, 2006 07:20 am (UTC)

oh no do you think it will still be so cold in Berlin mid-February? I'll be between there and the UK soon. sad i'll miss you but thrilled about leaving these shores.
xo
mischa


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nicepimmelkarl
.
Tue, Jan. 24th, 2006 08:48 pm (UTC)

oi spoilt brat. poetry starts at minus 20.
plum-schnaps. 2 finger victory.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Jan. 24th, 2006 07:49 am (UTC)


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nato_dakke
nate
Tue, Jan. 24th, 2006 09:02 am (UTC)

a lot of the older schools are kitted out with those things. one in each classroom. between classes the kids huddle around them.

despite the prevalence of pinpoint heaters electic or otherwise, smoke detectors or other fire prevention measures are also absent in most residences.


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(Anonymous)
Tue, Jan. 24th, 2006 09:31 am (UTC)

This night it was -19° here in Berlin, now it has finally warmed up a bit. It's now -11°.

(I may have to convert to Buddhism, though: the radiator in the study has frozen over night and now won't come back on.)

der.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Jan. 24th, 2006 10:13 am (UTC)

Minus 19 is amazingly cold, considering the lowest temperature ever recorded in Berlin is minus 23.


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in idaho - (Anonymous) Expand

(Anonymous)
Tue, Jan. 24th, 2006 10:12 am (UTC)

I'm wondering whether this really is a culture-specific thing, or whether it's common in many countries with mild climates. I'm from Sydney, which has a very mild winter by northern European standards, and yet I often feel much colder there than I do in London or Paris. No central heating, poor insulation, etc. Similarly I was shivering in Lisbon in November - no heating in several of the restaurants we went to. There may be an economic tipping point involved here - if you live in a mild climate with short winters, it may make more sense to tough it out rather than invest in central heating and good insulation.

Hugo


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mckibillo
mckibillo
Tue, Jan. 24th, 2006 12:20 pm (UTC)

Yes, perhaps if Japan HAD a mild climate that could be a consideration. But Japan's climate ranges from tropical all the way in Okinawa to arctic in Hokkaido. The main island Honshu could be considered mild pretty much only from Tokyo and points south. Since most major cities lie in that direction, with the exception of Sapporo (in Hokkaido), the impression is of a mild climate. I certainly had that thought before moving here. But with a meter of snow outside my front door now I don't quite see it that way.


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(Anonymous)
Tue, Jan. 24th, 2006 10:50 am (UTC)

It seems that the problem (in Japan, and really everywhere), is a lack of snuggling ! (http://www.japantimes.com/cgi-bin/getarticle.pl5?ek20060110ks.htm)


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Jan. 24th, 2006 12:31 pm (UTC)

It should be noted that Michiyo is smart, attractive and sexy -- she owns eight pairs of skin-tight, pin-heel boots that, when combined with her collection of skin-tight Earl jeans, makes her look like a "wasei Kyameron (the Japanese Cameron Diaz),"

I'm sorry, I would also have serious commitment issues with a woman who dressed that badly!


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petit_paradis
petit_paradis
erik
Tue, Jan. 24th, 2006 12:12 pm (UTC)
hey big....

suspender!




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(Anonymous)
Tue, Jan. 24th, 2006 01:07 pm (UTC)

Shit, the coldness iof my sleeping quarters was the least of my worries during my new year trip to Tokyo.

I asked the woman I love to marry me; she said no; I spent the remainder of the trip walking around Tokyo crying... and finding it impossible to avoid places where we'd made special memories together. The Meguro river is romantic for me, anyway...

I'm just glad you're all having a better time in Japan!


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Aug. 3rd, 2006 03:40 am (UTC)

I UNDERSTAND


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LOST LOVE - (Anonymous) Expand
qscrisp
qscrisp
Tue, Jan. 24th, 2006 01:08 pm (UTC)
bonchi

When I wintered in Kyoto (twice), I was simply never warm except for brief periods in public buildings. I spent some months during which a cold feeling never completely left the marrow of my bones.

I think it is largely to do with ingrained habits of building, and what you are used to. When I spoke to Japanese people about central heating on occasion, they had never heard of it, and it seemed a very novel idea to them, which I found a bit odd.

I heard one explanation as to the nature of Japanese homes from a farmer, who told me that the buildings were designed to have no definitive barrier between outside and inside. There are simple mutiple, loose-fitting layers. This does fit with the idea of homes built with an awareness of nature, but I think the idea made more sense in pre-industrial times. Disposable houses, like disposable chopsticks, are hardly eco-friendly.


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(Anonymous)
Sun, Jan. 20th, 2008 01:08 pm (UTC)
Re: bonchi

I think you are on to something about the fact that people simply don't know there is another way to live. I have lived in Japan for 3 years and last year I took 5 Japanese people to my home in Pittsburgh in winter and they were all amazed at the fact that my family's house was warm all day and night and that we could turn off the heat the the next day it would still be warm. Also, just before I read this blog, I was talking to my Japanese girlfriend about insulation (which she was completely unaware of at the age of 27). I explained about the difference between wearing a t-shirt on a cold day (Japanese house) and wearing a coat on a cold day (Western house), but I think without a real world experience there is no true understanding of other possibilities.
This, to me, is the root of the continuation of an old problem. Japanese people's travel plans usually fit into short periods around work and public holidays. While on vacation outside the country, they often stay in hotels, which (like Japanese hotels) stay warm. They don't get a chance to live in another country or stay for a couple months to experience daily living. It is part of the one job for life immediately after college system. Therefore few people understand that there is a way to stay warm while minimizing costs.
Of course, I think there is also a huge interest for the construction companies, plus in this consumer culture, hundreds of millions of dollars must be pumped into the economy each year for keep-you-warm consumer products (kerosene heaters, kerosene, hot patches, space heaters, electric blankets, electric rugs, boot dryers, electric pants, kotatsu and kotatsu replacement bulbs or cords, and so on). People want to be warm and the economy is helped the most by selling countless frequently replaced items than simply insulating a house when it is built. What I am saying is there is a lot of vested interest in keeping people cold and if they don't know there is any other way they will do whatever they can to stay warm (at whatever cost).


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henryperri
henryperri
Tue, Jan. 24th, 2006 01:28 pm (UTC)

maybe it's so that the Japanese youth can continue to show off their heavily layered FoBo look while indoors.


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