On Heating an Apartment in Japan

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.

Space Heaters
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.

Electric Rugs/Blankets
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.

Hot Baths
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.

This entry was posted in Culture Shock, Preparations, Uncategorized, Weird. Bookmark the permalink.

25 Responses to On Heating an Apartment in Japan

  1. Blue Shoe says:

    Haha, nice…think you covered most of the options, there. Don’t forget about Air-cons, though. Expensive as they may be, I have mine running at least half the time I’m home.

  2. I know that apartment building of which you speak!

  3. Jon Allen says:

    at least if there was insulation, whatever heat you generated would stay in the house, but it seems that no such word exists in Japanese.

  4. Omg this is the best thing I have read in forever. I cannot sleep when it’s cold and I spent about 3 months trying to do it ‘the Japanese way’ (no heat at night) and ended up with bronchitis and about 3 colds after that. I just run the damn air-con all night long, and say to hell with it when it comes to paying the electric bill.

    Hilariously, I told a Japanese acquaintance about my ‘winter habits’ and she just about had a heart attack and told me that I CANNOT HAVE THE HEAT ON AT NIGHT IT JUST IS NOT DONE. I explained to her that I would probably die from a lung infection if I had to breath in cold air for longer than a few nights (there’s just something about the winter air here that my lungs cannot handle. Japanese doctors are clueless as to what the problem might be) and she responded ‘That doesn’t matter! You should just wear more clothes!’ and went on to describe how she wore like 4 layers of tights under two pairs of sweat pants and five shirts. I just smiled at her and said that I’d think about it, while secretly wanting to punch her in the face for basically saying that she didn’t care if I died or not.

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  7. Joanna Clark says:

    What’s with the anti-kerosene diatribe? I live in central Japan and only have to refill the kerosene once a week at most. I pop a window open maybe once a night for five minutes if I’m feeling especially paranoid (I have probably done this five times in two years). No nausea, no death, cheap as all hell. I hate the lack of central heating here just as much as the next person, but why knock the cheapest, warmest way to combat it?

  8. Alyssa says:

    Interestingly enough, heating options in Japan vary depending on where you live. If you’re far north enough, things do get better. I lived in Sendai Japan in the fall and early winter and it was cold! I remember how depressing it was to come home to a cold apartment and to be able to see my breath inside the house. No insulation and only a kerosene heater to rely on. Then I moved up to Morioka in Iwate and there was a huge difference! My new apartment was insulated and I could come home to a warm apartment and we had an electric heater attached to the wall that worked really nice. We didn’t keep it on all night but it kept the apartment warm enough till the next morning. I lived there from December till about May. I can imagine that you can find even better options up in Hokkaido.

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  10. Laura4NYC says:

    This is pretty funny!

  11. Red says:

    Forget the apartments. The schools are just cement boxes and they refuse to pull out the heaters (no matter how cold) until Dec 1st. No ifs ands or buts. I sat at school today in heat tech, 2 sweaters and a wool coat and scarf with those air activated heat pads attached to me under the sweaters, all over my body.

    Every year the teachers can’t seem to understand why influenza shuts down the schools. I want to scream in their face for making those poor girls come to school without tights, or leggings or anything but those skirts. It’s child abuse.

  12. Paperdoll says:

    I share your cynicism about Japanese heating…as I sit here on my cancer rug, burning a pile of ¥1,000 notes…

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  14. ABD4EVR says:

    I used to chuckle about the gas space heaters with “extension cord” supply hoses. Kept my apartment warm, though.

  15. Big_K says:

    Now it makes sense why a cold is a death sentence in all those anime I’ve been watching.

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  18. Bani says:

    Luckily, my first winter here in 2014, Tokyo, was rather mild, apparently. My Russian roommate constantly complained and cranked the AC, while I complained about it being too hot. I was laughing at her because, well, she was /Russian/, and I was a Vancouverian from Canada. Vancouver is like, super mild. And yet, I still went to the conbini in the middle of winter in just a short outside-inside-dochiramoOK dress and a fuzzy jacket, pantless.
    Sometimes I wonder if it really was just mild that year, or the people from Tokyo were overdramatising it (Hokkaido, I’m sure, would be a different story).
    And of course, I died during summer. I hate summers here. So much.

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  20. Emily says:

    I am really curious about the reasons behind all of this. Does it just come down to cost? If you insulated the house to keep the cold and heat in then installed central air conditioning, its not like you have to use it 24/7. Wouldn’t the home stay cooler/warmer longeImr and use about the same amount of electricity? (not to mention keeping the mold out of your home in the summer)

    I’m getting ready to build a house in Japan with my husband who is Japanese and weve been debating back and forth over this. He is just convinced that its because central air is outragously expensive, but Im pretty sure it wont be too much more expensive (aside from the installation cost) The newer systems that they have now are suprisingly good on electricity, some even better than the window units ive seen.

    I guess it’ll be a lot of research and maybe even contacting some american builders to see what they think. I’m also planning on having a fireplace, which my husband seems to want as well. If it comes down to spending double on my electric bill in the end to have a nice warm/cool home Ill just pay it. xD

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  22. PGM says:

    I’m living in Yonezawa where the temparature are close to hokkaido it is now late october but the temparture goes down up to 5ºC at night and the snow will start from november . and here in there house no heating system. I was living in Okayama before coming to yonezawa which is more warm place and the summer is really hot there was no snow at all. But I didn’t fine any difference between Yonezawa and okayama’s house. It’s disgusting. Their kids are coming to school with rainy nose. sore throat but wearing a shorts…. isn’t it funny. Influenza is more severe in Japan I guess, then other countries……But they the Japanese think only hokkaido are cold enough for a central heating system……

  23. Imfeelingcold says:

    No. Its because Japanese are Japanese and stubborn as fuck. If they don’t know something they’ll think its crap because if it was any good surely the Japanese would have thought of it before right? So instead they freeze their asses off.

    Centralized heating (hot water) should add almost nothing to the overall cost. Radiators start at something like 200 bucks so that adds up to 1000 ~ 1600 if you want one in every room. You might have to buy a slightly stronger boiler than when you’d just be using it to boil water for showers/kitchen use but that won’t cost thousands of dollars extra and piping is probably pretty insignificant.

    Installation costs can’t be high either especially when you are building a new house. Though I suspect Japanese contractors might act like its something very difficult and expensive just because that crazy foreigner is requesting something they haven’t done before.

    I’m pretty sure the whole thing should be 5 grand at most.

    That said the slightly more expensive houses/apartments seem to have floor heating and new apartments do have (some form of) insulation.

    Basically anything affordable built pre 2000 is crap. You might get lucky if it was built after that ;)

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