Since global warming began to kick in, temperatures in the UK haven’t been far behind, but even at 37˚c I quite happily played a round of golf with my friend B-san a few years ago (B-san was, incredibly, wearing jeans at the time). Even Spain in June (honeymoon / 30˚c+) and Saudi Arabia in May (work / 40˚c+) never felt as oppressive as this, and the only difference between them and Japan, as far as I can tell, is the humidity. High humidity makes it feel as if you’re wrapped in a radiator, the sweat squeezed out of you like water from a flannel, and I can’t even begin to imagine how people cope in places like Hong Kong and Singapore, where your shirt will be sodden within approximately five seconds of stepping outside.
The solution, of course, is air conditioning, but quite apart from the amount of electricity it uses, air con can’t be very good for your health. Sure, it’s nice to go to the supermarket on a summer’s day and loiter in the freezer section, but even after a few hours in an air-conditioned office, I can feel my throat dry up and my temples start to throb. More importantly – and particularly in places like Tokyo, where every office block, restaurant and shopping centre, every bus, train and taxi is artificially cooled – the downside of pumping cold air into a building or a vehicle is that you are simultaneously pumping hot air out of it. Rumour has it that if everyone switched off their air conditioners in a city like Tokyo, the temperature would drop by three or four degrees, which kind of defeats the object of using them in the first place, although of course, if I a) ruled the world and b) managed to have air conditioning banned, I would be prepared to make one or two exceptions: supermarket freezer sections, for example, and hospitals.
In recent years, the Japanese in particular have been trying to solve the problem of inefficient air con, either by designing air conditioners that use less electricity, or by utilising the hot air that would otherwise be wasted to produce hot water (not that they really need to – when I get home from work on a summer’s day and turn on the cold tap in the kitchen, water that has been sitting in the pipes for the previous few hours will be hot enough to have a shower in). There are now sprinklers in some public places that spray a fine mist of cold water over passers by, and the most outlandish scheme I have heard of for combating electricity shortages this summer – a scheme that thankfully got no further than the planning stage – would have involved shipping thousands of tons of snow from Hokkaido to Tokyo, to be stored underground and used as the main ingredient in some new-fangled cooling system.
I wonder to what extent productivity suffers during the summer months, as it’s as much as I can do to turn on the computer and type this blog entry (when it’s 35˚c with sixty per cent humidity, fingertips act like tubes of Pritt Stick on a computer keyboard), and most of the time I’d rather be lying in a darkened room next to a large glass of ice water than working or even sitting up straight. Teaching an English lesson is more a matter of endurance than enjoyment, and I’ve learnt from my colleagues that it’s a good idea to have at least a couple of spare shirts on hand for when those sweat stains start to become too obvious or too, er, fragrant. Also, the hot weather puts people on edge, and after the row our neighbours on the second floor had recently, the couple downstairs followed suit last week, prompting much discussion between Mrs M and I about exactly which items of furniture they had thrown at each other, and where they had landed (nowhere near the baby, we’re assuming).
The sensible and natural way of avoiding the heat is to get up early and do whatever you have to do while the temperature is still manageable, so when I arrived for work at 7am the other day (I was accompanying some of the students to an English debating contest), kocho-sensei had been cutting the grass since six, and one of my Japanese teachers does the gardening at a similarly early hour. Most Japanese won’t go so far as to have a proper siesta (because people travel further to work these days, the siesta is a dying art even in Spain) but one or two teachers can often be seen nodding off at their desks if they have a free period after lunch, so yes, that rumour you’ve heard about people falling asleep in meetings really is true, although I can’t say that I’ve been brave enough to try it myself…