On Turning on the Japanese Air Conditioner

There’s nothing simple about turning on an air conditioner in Japan.

In trains and public offices across the country, the air conditioner is controlled, as are all things, by a faceless bureaucracy. When I worked in an American TV shop, I’d heard that a central office in Georgia regulated our AC, which explained why we had chicken flesh from refrigerator conditions.

The air conditioner rules in Japan are further removed from that reality, determined not by the comparatively sensical temperature in Georgia, but by the date. If it is earlier than (say) July 1, you cannot use the air conditioner. If the temperature is 102 degrees on June 29, you cannot use the air conditioner.

It’s one step away from setting the oven temperature by your checking account balance.

After July 1, air conditioners are set strictly at 28C (82F) until September. For that time period, every government office in Japan is 82 degrees.

Cool Biz
The idea is that people should dress to keep cool, and not dress up for an air conditioner. In America, this spawns a temperature arms race, where cold employees freeze in an office, wear a sweater the next day, and then crank the AC to accommodate their decision to wear sweaters to an office in July. By August, the entire office has scarves and wool hats.

So in principle, the Japanese approach makes sense. The office should not be cold in the summer, but merely tolerable. To help workers out, the government announces a date when its employees (such as school teachers) can stop wearing jackets and neckties.

Unfortunately, this date doesn’t necessarily have any relation to the outside temperature or the use of air conditioning. If it is 102 degrees on (say) April 29, men have to wear suit jackets and a necktie. If it is the same temperature the next day, but the rules are now relaxed, you don’t. This plan – called “cool biz” – is an energy-saving measure so that fewer offices increase the thermostat on hot days to accommodate underdressed staff.

Necktie sales have suffered (dropped by a third, according to the necktie industry) but the measure has controlled greenhouse gas emissions as well, stopping about a month’s worth of CO2 from 3.6 million homes from going out and frying the atmosphere over the course of the first two years, which no one can complain about.

However, it is representative of some major quirks that, for better or for worse, Shinto’s naturalism has contributed to Japanese culture:

  • Even the response to the weather requires a specific ritual and dress, arranged by consensus but mostly through bureaucracy.
  • Nature is what it is. Suffering through uncomfortable weather is noble.
  • Life is, and should always be, shaped by natural events, even if it doesn’t have to be. (See also: Umbrellas).

The Sun Also Rises
The Japanese have also rejected daylight savings time based on these principles. It seems that the sun rises at about 3:45 in the morning on some days. I have to cover my window with a winter blanket to sleep beyond the four-hour mark, but the crows don’t pay any attention as they alert the world to the renewed threat of daylight.

I’ve noticed that expats tend to go a little crazy around the end of May or start of June. I blame the sun and its partner, sleep deprivation.

But even if the entire nation of Japan went crazy for a few weeks, I imagine they’d prefer it to changing the clock face, which would be troublesome and against the natural order.

Say what you want about Japan, but they aren’t kidding around when it comes to the sun. It’s the kami, (roughly, “Goddess,”) Amaterasu, who gave birth to the Emperor. She’s on the flag. She’s why it’s the land of the rising sun.

In the myths, Amaterasu vanquishes famines and battles the storm kami, her brother, a rather unstable being who shifts in stories from evil to good, but always ends up fighting with Amaterasu eventually.

We’ve had rainy season here, including large landslides and evacuations from nearby Oita prefecture, and when the sun comes out from the soaking onslaught of dark clouds, it feels absolutely victorious.

The Aircon As Heresy
As heat and sunlight are the gifts of the most benevolent Goddess of the Shinto faith, you might see why the Japanese turn on the air conditioning with some degree of subconscious dissonance.

Gods and Goddesses is a very Western translation of kami, though, and a bit of overkill. Shinto doesn’t root itself in Gods or even spirits, as we tend to relate to them. Rather, a kami is an element of the world that inspires awe. When we say the sun goddess, the Japanese are thinking more along the lines of “the sun that inspires awe,” such as warm days, or after eradicating a rain storm (and the awe the rainstorm inspires is a kami of its own).

You know that scene in American Beauty where Ricky Fitts goes bonkers over that plastic bag? In Japan, they’d say that Ricky is recognizing the kami of wind.

It was one of those days when it’s a minute away from snowing and there’s this electricity in the air, you can almost hear it. Right? And this bag was just dancing with me. Like a little kid begging me to play with it. For fifteen minutes. That’s the day I realized that there was this entire life behind things, and this incredibly benevolent force that wanted me to know there was no reason to be afraid, ever.

Ricky, we’ve found you a religion.

Shinto places tremendous importance in being open to this kind of awe, and to the full experience of kami. While people in Japan can (and seemingly always will) be distracted by daily life, reminders of natural beauty – the Gods behind all things – are the sustaining tenet of modern Shinto.

Close the windows on a hot or cold day to block out the weather, and you are distancing yourself from awe and wonder at the power of nature, and the sun, and the rain, and the wind.

Comfort – here, living life within a certain range of temperatures – is actually a way of staying rooted in your own troubles and anxieties, because you are (literally) closing the window on awe. The air conditioner might inspire awe, too – and artificial objects have kami, too (see ATM machines). But the air conditioner doesn’t usually make us appreciate anything, it just isolates us from extremes.

You can imagine your air conditioner sucking in the awe-and-wonder gods and filtering them into a fluorocarbon mixture, which it spits out in the form of cold, joyless air.

So we don’t bow to the kami of the aircon. In Japan, if the sun wants you to sweat, you sweat. If you sweat enough, you think about the power of the sun, and your connection to (and dependence on) the natural world, and maybe you won’t care so much that you’re sweaty and tired, because maybe you’re supposed to be sweaty and tired.

Further Reading: 
Shinto and the 21st Century Ecological Attitude (pdf) by Daniel M.P. Shaw.

You have a crush on This Japanese Life. You’re defending it, you like it on Facebook, you wanna have, like, ten thousand of its babies. 

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11 Responses to On Turning on the Japanese Air Conditioner

  1. zoomingjapan says:

    Still, the weather in Japan is quite stable compared to many other countries! Until quite recently you could be sure it wouldn’t be too hot in June, so the regulations make sense. Recently things are changing even here. May it be global warming or whatever.

    The time when men are allowed to wear short sleeves and stuff is called “Cool Biz” – which I find really amusing! :)

    Actually Japan used to have summer and winter time and changed their clocks twice a year – for a very short period of time, but then changed back to what we have now.

    As for summer heat and A/C in Japan I only can advice anybody who comes to visit around that time, to always have something they can quickly put on, like a towel or a small jacked or whatever. You’ll sweat like a pig outside and then sit in a train that feels like a fridge. Not very healthy if you’re not used to it!

  2. Japan is governed in most things by a strict set of rules and procedures. There is usually a defined start and end date for most things. I love the fact one year they declared the rainy season had officially ended but it still carried on rainy for the next two days :)

  3. x_stei says:

    My dad has always asked to explain my fixation on Japan. I never quite understood it myself. Reading your blog has made me understand why I really like Japan. It feels like I have a deep and intuitive understanding of its culture, and only upon reading you write about the idiosyncrasies of its culture could I seriously understand why I love it so much. Thank you! (I know it’s an odd post to reply this to… haha)

  4. I hate the date/rule-obsession here. Reminds me of the American fighter pilot who became an ace (three kills) in his first combat flight in the Pacific: three ‘green’ Japanese pilots were told not to deviate from their flight plan under any conditions. So the American came close behind one, opened up his cannons until it spiralled down to the jungle floor, couldn’t believe the other two made no evasive or combat manoeuvres, so on to the next…

  5. Ashley says:

    Surprisingly, I’ve had a completely different experience with the whole aircon thing (aside from the strict date rules – that seems to always apply…). When I first arrived in Japan four years ago, though “cool biz” was indeed something, the air conditioner was still turned down to 22 or 23 degrees C, all the time at my workplace (school). Same with my second school I transferred to the next year. As well as my husband’s and a few other people I had talked to about the situation. If I was alone in an air conditioned room, I’d turn it off or turn it up to 27 or 28, and when someone would come in, they would turn it back down to 22 or 23. So I always had to wear a sweater and sometimes my thick fleece at work. Except when I was teaching in an non-air conditioned classroom, of course.

    It seems that more people became conscious of the aircon being set higher after March 11 last year, but I’m sure it depends on the workplace also. I’m only noticing more so this and last summer that stores, shopping malls, trains, etc., are warmer than the first two summers I was here (when I had to wear something warm while shopping or on the train).

    Anyway, that aside, it’s a well-written post and an interesting way to look at why things are the way they are here! (And seriously, why can’t Japan just adopt daylight savings… I would love it. My laundry would love it as well.)

    • renmi86 says:

      Yeah, I noticed that too. Last summer was really about energy conservation and the “ganbatte” spirit. A lot of places even turned off the air completely (often making the statement, “Well, those in Tohoku…”)

  6. Sean says:

    On a lighter note, if your lucky enough to get one of the hot days off from work – you could always stand infront of the freezer ;)

  7. staff says:

    Interesting post. I enjoyed reading it very much. Myself, I have always admired efforts by humans to influence or change the natural world, to fly into the face of all-powerful Mother Nature, whether that be eliminating our experiencing seasonal change or chemically killing off some stinging bug whose extinction then starves off a species of bird whose droppings feed a weed that has a chemical that can be extracted and used to cure split ends. We almost always end up leaving the environment a little worse off than before, but you have got to love the plucky spirit behind it all.

  8. Pingback: On Being Sick in Japan | This Japanese Life. | 生命を外面九天です

  9. Archana says:

    the problem with the heat is its so humid and sticky. if it was a dry heat – all you would have to do is drink water and find a shady spot – the humidity makes the built up nature of japan unbearable. then you get the air – which is hot – and wet – gross!

    its hotter in india but because its mostly dry heat – its not as bad – just keep well hydrated and all is fine. if we ever go back – will avoid the summer completely.

  10. Pingback: So grossed out « An Easy Distance

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