Sporadic Happiness (in Japan!)

(formerly) updated every Wednesday

Omake #1: Japan doesn’t believe in central heating

on March 16, 2012

First off, “Omake” (pronounced oh-ma-kay) means “Extra” in Japanese. 

I have decided to on occasion make an omake post if it is something on the more negative or frustrating side of life, as it’s a bit of a deviation from my standard style. 

I originally started this blog because I wanted to appreciate various aspects of my life in Japan and focus on the good while ignoring or shrugging off the bad, but I’ve often thought there’s so many more topics I could post about if I didn’t have such a limited scope.

While I still want my blog to remain positive, I think it’s also important to remember that life isn’t always rainbows and butterflies.

And besides, there can be humor to be found in suffering.  Or a silver lining in an unfortunate situation.  Or whatever sort of positive spin you want to put on something irksome.

My biggest complaint about Japan is and probably always will be the fact that their methods of heating/cooling buildings is insufficient at best, and non-existent at worst.

I’m a very sensitive person, and this bothers me tremendously.  I’m from the Chicago area in the US, which is just as humid as Japan in the summer and plenty colder than the area of Japan I live in (snow fall and even snow storms around Chicago are common in winter; snowfall, or rather a “snow sprinkling” is a rare sight where I currently live and lasts an hour at best and melts practically immediately).  Nevertheless, despite Chicago temperatures often getting below freezing in the winter, I only suffered a bit for it when I was a college student and had to walk out in the cold to get to classes or visit friends’ apartments.  What I took for granted though, was that once I arrived at my destination, I would be warm and toasty.

Whenever people ask me what has been the hardest thing for me to adjust to living in Japan, or in terms of my experience with “culture shock” I always reply with – the cold!  the heat!  And it isn’t the fault of the weather, but the Japanese themselves.

I actually recently wrote an article about this in Japanese for my town’s local monthly magazine.

Let me briefly sum up my points, and then link you an article which talks about this very issue in an eloquent way (and from the perspective of an Italian, not an American which I am, since we Americans are notorious for mis-using and over-using energy in the first place.)

1)  First of all Japanese houses are usually not insulated.  Buildings for work or school maybe are a little, or maybe not.

2) Even in the dead of winter Japanese like to keep a window, or several windows, open for air flow.  They see this as “common sense.”  I see it as stupidity.

3) Japanese only heat certain parts of a building or house, and not the entire thing.  For example, at schools, only the staff room is heated.  In a house, perhaps only the living room will be heated.  This means that hallways, classrooms, and other rooms are all the EXACT same (read: freezing) temperature as the outside.

4) When Japanese DO heat a room, they use a variety of sketchy and ineffective methods, such as giant clunky heaters that use gas (which technically you’re supposed to open a window for airflow for these but no one ever does in this case…), a heated carpet in a living room that is only effective if you’re sprawled out on it, or a rather weak electric guzzling device placed near the ceiling in homes that serves as both heater and air conditioner.  But you see, heat rises.  So, heating the ceiling area of a room?  Good one!

Basically, the Japanese are trying to be environmentally friendly, or cost conscious (electricity is expensive here), or maybe they’re just set in their old, traditional ways. 
But kids here catch colds ALL the time, there’s a big stink made about influenza every year as practically entire classes of kids all catch it.  (Besides the heating issue, girls are required to wear skirts as part of their school uniform and have their legs exposed even in the dead of winter…a topic for another time.)  Back in the US I used to get sick maybe once a year, and after staying home from school or work for about 2 days, I got over it.  Here in Japan I’ve gotten sick about 2-4 times each the winter, and the kind of sick that lasts several days to about a week, and even then my body doesn’t fully recover because it’s still having to battle the never-ending cold. 

And keep in mind that I’m not just talking about near freezing temperatures.  Even something as harmless as your house being 50-60 degrees Fahrenheit – doesn’t look so bad right?  You try living with that temperature around that clock, for days and days on end, and then get back to me, kay?

Also, last year, for the first time in my life I had nights where I literally could not sleep because I was too cold, despite the millions of layers of socks, shirts, pants, and even winter coat and hat I was wearing to bed.  I was only able to sleep again after buying myself a hot water bottle, something that seemed incredibly stone-aged and archaic to me previously.

Oh yeah, and at school?  I’m usually okay in the staff room but to brave teaching classes I’ve had to wear, each day, long johns under thick pants, two pairs of socks (one that comes up to my knees), a tank top undershirt, a long-sleeved undershirt, a sweater-like long-sleeved shirt, and a fleece jacket, and even then sometimes I’ve been so cold.  I’ve never had to wear so many clothes in my life.  Even still I got frost bite on my toes this year for the first time in my life.  Students regularly get frost bite on their hands.  And the poor students wear far few layers than I do.

Anyway, enough of my rant, because I could go on and on and on….

Enjoy this article (which is in English, don’t worry), from the Japan Times, a newspaper I often read online to pass the time at work and keep updated on Japan.

The article is titled:

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?




6 responses to “Omake #1: Japan doesn’t believe in central heating

  1. kathrinjapan says:

    As a new resident here in Tokyo, your blog helped bring certain cold truths to light.

  2. Oh you poor thing, that sounds awful!!! Heating the home is definitely one thing the Koreans do extremely well – we are lucky to have ondol in all housing here, heating from the floor that warms the whole house until toasty. We couldn’t have got through winter without it! I’m surprised that a country that is technologically advanced as Japan doesn’t have better heating methods.

    • Yeah, I’m jealous of the Korean heating system! So it actually kept you plenty toasty and warm all winter? You didn’t suffer at all when you were at home?

      How about schools or office buildings though? Are those heated at all, or is it just homes that are heated?

      • We didn’t suffer AT ALL at home – the ondol really does the trick. The gas bill went up a bit, for sure, but we found we could have the ondol for an evening and the house would remain pretty warm until the next evening. So good :)

        I’m not sure what the public schools have but the hagwons have a variety of heating methods. My school uses gas column heaters which are pretty effective. But after taching a class of pre-pubsescent boys and having no window open it gets pretty stinky! Haha. Dan’s school uses fairly ineffective fan heaters so unless you’re standing in front of them, it gets pretty cold.

        Restaurants tend to be well heated. The more traditional places, where you sit on the floor, have ondol or heated cushions that you sit on (or both!). The only time I’ve been cold here has been walking to and from places. Winter sucks – roll on spring!

        • Wow cool. That sounds more like what I’m used to in the US – winter can be rough outside but is generally comfortable inside. Glad you’re not having to suffer like we do here in Japan. Either way though, I’m ready for spring too, so we don’t have to suffer at all anymore!

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