Mount Fuji

The cold and the kotatsu 

It's not uncommon for Tokyo, which sits right on the border between semi-tropical and temperate zones, to be paralyzed by a snowfall of about two inches (four centimeters). Tokyoites are not used to snow, and even the slightest downfall can snarl up the city. Despite the fact that the snow all melts within three days, the city comes to a halt as the inhabitants huddle around their heaters beneath layers of blankets.

It might be well to remember where Japan is. It is a string of northern islands off the coast of Siberia. The southernmost main island of Japan, Kyushu, lies partially off the southern tip of the Korean Peninsula, itself no tropical paradise. The other three main Japanese islands parallel the Siberian coast, stretching the length of California up towards the Arctic Circle.

Japan should be one big icicle, and just as miserable as Siberia. It isn't because it is warmed by the North Pacific Current. So, Kyushu is semi-tropical, like Southern California, while Korea, just a bare 100 miles (190 kilometers) away, shivers through arctic winters. The North, from above Tokyo on up, gets lots of snow, but it never gets cold like Siberia.

Even so, why don't the Japanese figure out how to heat their 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 pretty, 32-year-old Korean ad-account executive working in Tokyo. The Koreans, unlike the Japanese, are typically outspoken.

"The Japanese didn't have any way to heat their houses in winter," Mint continues, "and I've never been colder in my life. I don't think that they're stupid anymore, but I still think the way the Japanese heat their houses — or maybe I should say, don't heat their houses — is the stupidest thing I've ever seen."

Probably it's an outgrowth of traditional Japanese architecture, where no provision was made to heat houses at all. Few modern apartments have any type of central heating or air conditioning built into them either.

When you rent an apartment, you have to buy your own heating and air conditioning unit. There is no built-in heater. Japanese buildings, even the most very expensive ones, are built totally without insulation, and double-paned windows or storm windows are almost completely unknown. No Japanese house is built with either a chimney or a fireplace, and to make the situation even worse, Japanese homes and apartments are built with entire walls of sliding glass doors.

"Japanese houses are built for summer," Kano Kimiyoshi, an old friend, once explained to your reporter, "and because the Japanese perhaps came originally from the South Seas, Japanese houses exhibit traits of tropical dwellings, such as being raised off the ground." This is the charitable explanation.

Ando Kenichi, your reporter's old landlord, who once rented him a traditional Japanese house in which he spent a freezing winter, has another take on it. "Japanese houses are dark and cold during the winter and stink during the summer." Ando-San felt that traditional Japanese houses were unlivable and himself lived in a Western-style house.

Yet even Western style dwellings in Japan would (and do) dismay any Westerner who has to live in one through a winter. In addition to all of the faults listed above, Japanese heating devices are also inefficient and sometimes outright dangerous.

Japanese heat only one, or at most two, rooms of their house, and central heating or air conditioning is unknown outside of the very largest buildings. With no built-in heating units in any apartments or other rentals, it is up to tenants to supply their own.

The standard type of heating/air conditioning unit is a cheap tinny device, increasingly made in China or Malaysia to cut costs. It functions as a heater in winter and an air conditioner in summer, and it doesn't do a good job at either.

It is mounted high up on the wall near the ceiling by installers who have the mechanical aptitude of circus seals. No, this is too harsh on seals. After they have finished bashing holes in walls (usually the wrong ones), hammering up pieces of wood with bent nails sticking out everywhere, and leaving assorted tubes and pipes draped over the interior wall, the whole thing ends up as a boxy radiator-fan which is dumped unceremoniously outdoors wherever it can fit. Neighbors move out — disposing of a heater/air conditioner costs money — leaving the radiator unit to rust in the front yard.

Such heat as they produce is all shot straight at the ceiling, leaving anything below shoulder height frigid. Most people also put down an electric carpet to counter this, so you end up with warm feet and warm shoulders and everything in between half-frozen. And this is in the room of the house which is heated. Everywhere else in the house remains the temperature of outdoors.

Even having one room in the house badly heated is a huge improvement over traditional heating, if you can call it that.

When people speak of traditional Japanese houses as being made of paper and bamboo, they are not too far off the mark. Add to this sliding doors and windows, which cannot be made airtight or even stop the breeze from whistling through them, and about the only place to get warm is in a scalding bath. Maybe this explains why the Japanese are so addicted to hot springs.

Chimneys and fireplaces were unknown in traditional houses. Such heating as there was came either from individual hibachi, which threw out about as much heat as the average ashtray, or via kotatsu. The kotatsu was a hole dug in the floor into which you could put your feet. Over this went a short-legged table, and over the table went a very heavy, broad coverlet that extended about a meter on all sides from the table. Over this coverlet, another table top was laid, and a small fire was kept going in the pit with smokeless charcoal. The kotatsu table was used as the dinner table and work table throughout the whole winter.

You sat with your feet in the pit, covered up to your waist with the coverlet, and at least from the waist down you were fairly warm. Of course from the waist on up, you were freezing, so you just piled on more and more layers of clothes. As a matter of fact, if you were a court lady, you piled on exactly 16 layers. Voila! The layered look!

In some farmhouses the kotatsu was huge, with room for 20 or more people around it, and even a space for the cat to slip under the covers. Indeed, one suspects that cats were the only beings that completely enjoyed Japanese architecture.

Japanese do not use beds, but instead use the futon, a semi-demi-quasi ancestor of the sleeping bag. A futon could be set up in any room of the house, and during winter, the entire family slept in the room with the kotatsu. The end of the futon was slipped under the kotatsu coverlet, thus heating up the futon.

But, it was cold, cold, cold.

Another alternative to heating up your futon in the kotatsu was to slip a bed-warmer into your futon. This was a lacquered box filled with asbestos into which a few coals from the kotatsu were slipped. It would warm up the futon very nicely.

Still, it was cold, cold, cold.

Clever court ladies would slip one of those lacquered boxes full of glowing coals into the bow of their obi (the sash around the kimono). You might say they were walking around with their own private heating system, while everyone else's teeth were chattering with the cold.

After World War II, people couldn't move out of Japanese-style houses fast enough. Huge danchi developments sprouted beside the arterial railroad lines leading into the cities. Danchi were huge apartment blocks, owing their soulless inspiration to Stalinist architecture and looking like human beehives.

Although thrown up quickly and carelessly, and shoving too many people into too small a space, they were infinitely superior to whatever the Japanese had lived in before.

The problem of heating was not solved, however. Many people chose to to try to heat their apartments with kerosene heaters, which were responsible every winter for gruesome accidents and endless fires, and are banned from almost every dwelling now by explicit clauses in the rental contract.

Another problem with kerosene heaters was that they put off such intense fumes that you had to keep the doors and windows wide open when you used one. This more or less defeated the whole purpose to begin with.

A family gathered around an electric kotatsuThen came the electric kotatsu, which was the same as the old kotatsu, except that now, in the cramped confines of an apartment, there was no hole to put your feet into, nor charcoal brazier, but instead an electric heater under the table. Once again, you baked from the waist down and froze from the waist up. A Dutch friend — and the Dutch prize thriftiness — thought they were so unique that she took one back to Holland to show her friends how thrifty the Japanese were.

The electric kotatsu has since been replaced by the heater/air-conditioner, which is an improvement, but not much. As long as the Japanese do not bother to insulate their houses, to do any type of weatherproofing, or to use storm windows, they are fighting a losing battle.

The same goes for summer as for winter. The real peak use of electricity and fuel is during the summer, when everyone is running air-conditioning full-out, not during the winter. Insulation, weatherproofing and double-pane windows would make it easier and more efficient to air-condition, too, but it is a waste of breath to try to convince anyone of this. The Japanese are convinced that they live in the best of all possible worlds.

"In Korea, we use a system called ondol to heat our houses," explains Mint. "I can't believe that the Japanese have no type of heating at all."

In the Korean ondol system, 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.

"The winter I spent in Seoul was the most comfortable winter of my life," reports an English friend. "With life in Korea, as in Japan, lived mainly on the floor, the ondol was very cozy, even when it was minus 20 degrees outside."

Also, it doesn't hurt a bit, apparently, that the Koreans insulate their houses, use double-sash windows, and also weatherproof.

"In the old days," Mint, a true ondol fan, explains further, "it was done by running pipes from the stove in the kitchen under the floor of the rooms near by. So the heat from cooking would also heat other rooms."

In northern China to this day, a similar system is used. Don't get the idea that China is a tropical country. The south, which borders Vietnam and Burma is, but the north borders Siberia and the chilly wastes of Mongolia. In northern China they use a kang, which is a raised brick platform that might be 20 to 30 feet square (3 to 4 square meters), heated by an oven beneath it, which is also often used for cooking. During the day it is used as a work space, and during the night as a sleeping platform. While different from the Korean ondol, the principal is much the same.

It's difficult to understand how the Japanese have managed to miss something so elementary as heating their houses. It's not just heating, either. For all the talk of Japanese houses being made for the summer, they aren't comfortable in the summer either. The concrete boxes most Japanese live in are clammy and cold in the winter and sweltering in the summer.

The Japanese don't seem to understand that they could be comfortable in both summer and winter by making only a bit of effort to build their houses better. But then, this gets into matters of quality-control, improving technology and giving the consumer value for his money. This is something that neither the Japanese construction industry nor the regulatory agencies of the government seem to be the slightest bit interested in.

The powers that be assume they have a captive audience. Japan is a country where the houses are miserable to live in in winter, where shoes are sold only by length and not width, and where vegetables shoot up in price two and three hundred percent in winter.

The Japanese seem to save their very worst for home. The quality of life, particularly reflected in their dwellings, but also in most general conditions, is much lower in Japan than the European or American. The slap-dash nature of Japanese dwellings just reflects how much the Japanese ignore — or have been forced to ignore — the very environment they live in, whether it's their houses or complete cities, making them essentially uncomfortable and dysfunctional.

For all the Japanese boasting and chest-thumping about quality, in the end you have to say one thing: if the Japanese built their cars like they build their houses, then there wouldn't be a single one on the road today.

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Editor's note: Bill Stonehill hails from Chicago, Illinois. Trained as an engineer and China specialist, he has now been living in Tokyo for well over 20 years. He imports Swiss watches, is expert at taking them apart, and if anyone knows what makes Japan tick too then he does. From 1999 until 2001 he wrote a regular Japan column for the Morrock News Service (sadly discontinued), which was enjoyed by Web-surfers around the world. We greatly appreciate the author's allowing us to republish some of his very best articles here in Japan Perspectives.