Japan does not believe in warmth without risk.
You might find a heater in various offices or installed for single-room use in apartments. But more often, you won’t. Instead, you will find various life-threatening electronic devices designed to warm the 3 cubic feet of space that surround it.
Allegedly, Japan resists centralized heating because of earthquakes. Houses are just being rebuilt so often, the theory goes, that it’s too expensive to build chimneys, insulation, or heating ducts in those brief moments when the ground stands still.
I don’t buy this, because it implies that the Japanese are only reluctantly building houses and have decided to collectively half-ass it. Even if the earth were a rolling, tumultuous jelly like substance, the Japanese way would be to build elaborate, efficient houses and then rebuild them every 10 days.
Surviving Winter the Japanese Way
There are a few ways to deal with winter in Japan, with various degrees of safety. I will outline them here and check their potential threat to human life.
Burn Kerosene in your living room
Warmth ranking: 5/5. Death ranking: 5/5 Pros: Cost. Cons: Nausea, Death.
Kerosene heaters are the deadliest, most popular way to keep your apartment toasty. They are about the size of a television set and run by burning kerosene in a small chamber. You keep the kerosene on your porch and pour it into the heater, and inevitably your floor and pants, once every two or three days.
Peek through the window and you’ll get a good look at the burning hot coils. Some people use the top of these things to boil water for tea and to moisturize the dry air. The best part of the kerosene heater is that you have to use them with a cracked-open window, because they spray exhaust fumes into the air that will poison you to death.
Warmth ranking: 4/5 Death ranking: 3/5 Pros: Non-Lethal. Cons: Cost.
These are rolling, flat-panel TV shaped devices that you plug into your electric sockets. They’re similar to western space heaters and will make you as cozy as a New York City hot dog vendor. These don’t kill you with noxious gases, which gives it a slight edge over kerosene. But because they’re dependent on electricity, they’re worthless in power outages, which is precisely when you literally can’t live without heat. They also drive up the electric bill. Think of it as warming yourself on a big pile of burning 1000-Yen bills.
Kotatsu, Your Electric Table Friend
Warmth Ranking: 3/5 Death Ranking: 2/5 Pros: Adorable. Cons: Never stops feeling dangerous.
The cutest method of staying warm, the kotatsu is a table with a blanket. You put your legs under the blanket and absorb the warmth generated by the red-hot electric lamp under the table. Just don’t lift your leg or absent-mindedly scratch your knee because that cute little guy will scald you with a second-degree burn. (OK, OK. Unless you have purchased one of these things from a second-hand store, the lamp will be covered by a protective cage kind of thing. But check, OK?) These plug-in, adding to the electric bill, and they basically only warm your legs but that’s enough. And you know all those warnings about not draping blankets over your space heater? Well, that is the core design principle of a kotatsu. Still cute though. And totally awesome.
Warmth Ranking: 5/5 Death Ranking: 4/5 Pros: Warm, fuzzy. Cons: Cancer.
A great resort for the short-sighted, since the pleasures of wrapping your body in a warm, fuzzy thing seem great until you see cancer.gov’s suggestion that you don’t. Because wrapping your body in electromagnetic radiation can cause cancer. Of course, they admit they don’t really have proof, but I will listen to whatever cancer.gov ssys. Also: Sterility.
Warmth Ranking: 2/5 Death Ranking: 1/5 Pros: Cheap, Pleasant.
Cons: Pruned Fingers.
Believe it or not, baths are a great way to stay warm in the winter, provided you don’t get out of them. I’m always reluctant to take a bath, since my shower room isn’t heated, but running hot water heats up and moisturizes the hallway. Soaking in hot water lowers your body’s core temperature, which means you feel warm for a while when you get out of the tub. After all, Japanese people go to onsens – public, outdoor baths – as a wintertime activity. Don’t scald yourself and remember to dry your hair before you leave the house.
Just Be Cold
Warmth Ranking: 0/5 Death Ranking: 1/5 Pros: Cheap. Cons: Horrible.
The Japanese approach to winter has its upsides. For one, it’s much more natural to know it’s cold when you are inside. A typical Japanese response to why they’re wearing a jacket in the house might be, “Because it’s winter.” Wearing a T-shirt in the winter is stupid. I still do it, even if it means I have to wrap myself in a blanket. This ties into the Japanese love of seasons and respect for the constant presence of nature in every drafty corner of their lives.
Japanese Deconstruction Theory
So, why don’t the Japanese have central heat?
I don’t think it’s earthquakes. But houses are torn down and rebuilt instead of constantly repaired and modified. You won’t see apartment buildings like the American Architectural mashup I rented in college, three generations of bad design theories piled on one sinking foundation: First floor, rotting 1800’s farmhouse. Second floor, retro 1970’s bachelor pad. Third floor, 1980’s bungalow. All of it collapsing.
The Japanese would have knocked that building down three times by now. So they build with an eye toward cheap destruction. Walls are about 10cm thick and easily destroyed – just ask any alcoholic gaijin why there’s a hole in his bedroom door. Cellars/Basements are rare (supposedly even banned in apartment buildings), so there’s nowhere to store a boiler or gas stove.
It’s also cheaper to avoid centralized heat – much like electric dryers for laundry, heat is expensive. While electric heaters are popular – as are electric rugs, electric toilet seat warmers, electric blankets, electric dancing-owl USB devices and electric heating tables – they, at least in theory, still save money by being used only when they’re directly in front of you.