Unwrapping the house for spring

by Robert Moorehead

As the days grow warmer and brighter, and the chill of winter starts to fade, we’ve gradually started removing the winter wrappings from our house.

Winter wrappings? Yes, in Japan, we survive cold winters not by wrapping our houses in insulation, but by using plastic gimmicks to try to keep out the cold. For example, we cover our windows in bubble wrap and hang thin plastic shower curtains (here, they’re cleverly relabeled as insulating sheets) under the curtains. We also put absorbent tape at the bottom of the windows to absorb the sheets of water that build up on the windows. (As a side note, my cats like the water, as they can sit in the window sill and lick the glass when they’re thirsty.)

But why don’t Japanese homes use insulation? Ah, there’s the rub. In the attic of our 21-year-old house, there’s nary a fiber of fiberglass insulation. But why not? Isn’t Japan trying to reduce its electricity consumption? Doesn’t letting all the heat escape from the house go against the mantra of “mottainai” (a Japanese phrase expressing regret at wastefulness)? Yes, and of course. So … how do Japanese explain this seeming incongruity?

During one of my many winter rants, which usually occurred after I found it was warmer outside my house than inside or after I received a utility bill, I asked this question to whomever would listen. The responses intrigued this sociologist, and ranged from cultural explanations (Japanese like cold houses), to appeals to tradition (Japanese traditionally have lived simply, including having cold houses), to vague religious connections (it’s originally Shinto, I think), to dismissive self-flagellation (yes, Japan is so stupid, I really wish it would change). Feel free to mix and match these explanations, as they’re not mutually exclusive. I also heard that Kyoto is simply colder than anywhere else, even places where the temperature is much lower. And, there’s always the unspoken thought that this whining gaijin should stop complaining. (That may be the most on-target one of all.)

None of these explanations satisfied me. If the Japanese like cold houses so much, then why are their offices so hot? And why are the electronics stores overflowing with a mind-numbing array of gadgets to heat your home? Electric blankets for your bed and for your lap, electric carpets, electric tables, electric toilet seats, kerosene heaters, natural gas heaters, electric heaters, radiant heaters. This doesn’t include the hand warmers, long underwear, gloves, scarves, hats, mittens, jackets, and sweaters. But Japanese like being cold?

Another chicken-and-the-egg explanation is that Japanese don’t want to buy insulation, and thus stores don’t stock it. But if you wanted to buy it, you can’t, because the stores don’t stock it. My head is spinning … And let’s not forget the complaint that US-style central heating is incredibly wasteful. Mottainai! This contrast leaves us choosing between heating rooms we’re not using, and freezing in rooms we are using. Are these really the only choices? Isn’t there something in the middle? If you want to only heat a few rooms, that’s great. But wouldn’t insulating those same rooms keep them warmer at a lower cost?

These explanations reminded me of Mirror of Modernity: Invented Traditions of Modern Japan, which deconstructs numerous cultural explanations of life in Japan and replaces them with structural and historical analyses. When we do this, we often find that the traditions we think are real, are often recent constructions. So why are Japanese houses so cold? My guess is that they’re cheaper to build that way, and that government regulations are probably set to discourage the construction of warmer houses. Why? Because the system’s rigged to the benefit of some and not of others. Consumer choice is an illusion. I’m sorry if that’s not as romantic as the image of a snowy Japanese night, with a woman in kimono snuggled under a kotatsu (heated table), in a room so cold she can see her breath. But, as Marx said, money talks.

If Japan is serious about reducing its energy consumption, then it will encourage people to insulate their homes, such as through tax incentives or rebates. A $500 investment per home in fiberglass insulation would pay for itself in energy savings very quickly. Insulated homes are cheaper to heat and cool. This isn’t rocket science, or even something harder, like sociology.

For now, I’m happy to no longer see my breath inside my own house. The shower curtains have come out of the windows, and soon the bubble wrap will also come down. And soon after that we’ll be cursing the summer heat and humidity, and feeling like winter’s cold stretch was a lie, that the torture of summer in Japan will never end. And then we’ll be cold again.

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2 thoughts on “Unwrapping the house for spring

  1. I believe the key reason has to do with how the Japanese relate to buildings.

    Most probably due to the variety of natural disasters past and present that regularly destroyed, and to a lesser extent still destroy them, Japanese view buildings as temporary. For many westerners buildings are far more permanent and worthy of investment my own childhood home is over 100years old, so our perspective is quite different/

    Because of this view of impermanence Japanese see little incentive for capital investments in the buildings. After all they are more than likely to be destroyed sooner or later, so why bother. Ask any property company and they will tell you that the building needs to amortize itself in about 30. (Temples interestingly are rebuild on a similar schedule). Additionally, most construction is done by large building companies. As you mention it is not in their particular interest to build well insulated houses, as the buyer at the time if purchase can’t see it and it does not demo as well as Sharps lates heat-pump Air-con/heater or some other electronic gadget .

    Back to the value of property; a fact that highlights the Japanese attitude to buildings is the total lack of maintenance when it comes to homes and offices. Sure japanese homes are usually kept exceedingly clean inside but a rusty of cracked wall is unlikely to be mended ever!! That is until the next Earthquake, Typhoon, Mudslide etc… takes out the house completely. And we build anew.

    Clearly Japan should adopt updated building codes to reduce consumption, but the combination of corporate interests and the momentum of public opinion is unlikely to accommodate this anytime soon.

    In the meantime just show a little more gaman, while Japan’s progress in the last century and ever more slowly eroded due to an ineffectual political system.

  2. Interesting post. I agree with your sentiments. It seems absolutely crazy that in a country with extreme seasons, and one that needs to cut their energy consumption, insulation is not used, meaning that air conditioners and heaters are necessary as the temperature inside doesn’t reflect the temperature outside. It’s June now, tsuyu season, and inside my apartment is so much hotter than outside.

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