It’s been seven years since I sweated my way through one of the hottest summers on record in a tiny Tokyo apartment. The summer after that was relatively cool, and when Mrs M and I flew over for the Japanese leg of our wedding celebrations in the summer of 2008, I disappeared for five weeks to cycle around Hokkaido, where the weather was positively British – ie. wet, windy and cold enough that on at least one occasion I went to bed wearing a hat, jacket and long trousers. 2010 was by all accounts unfeasibly hot, to the extent that more than a hundred people died from heatstroke (熱中症 / necchuhshoh), so taking the law of averages into account, I assumed this year would be bearable. Thus far, however, both my assumptions and the law of averages have been proved wrong, and among other records to be broken, a town in the Tokyo suburbs has recorded the hottest ever June temperature – over 39˚c.

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…

0 thoughts on “Heat”

  1. I fear for the future of the siesta and have been making a single handed attempt to revive it. My campaign began by falling asleep during a Japanese film I couldn`t understand this afternoon. Tomorrow and the next day I plan to do the same. The short nap gives me the energy late at night to type strange messages on the blogposts I follow.

  2. I have to say I really miss working for A Certain Mito-based ALT Company back in the day – used to finish at 2pm and be fast asleep in my apartment by about 3 – nowadays I have to skip the siesta and go to bed at 9.30pm instead.

  3. I would say town planning when it’s come to the heat island phenomena in Tokyo. I was told by the local that people are not allowed to build any building higher than palm trees in Bali ‘caz they respect it as that’s where god lives on the top of palm tree in Indonesia. Despite of high humidity, if there current of air, the wind, we don’t need air conditioning. Heat can be even pleasant when there is air current and pleasant breeze. Air conditioning itself is the cause of the heat.

  4. Thank you for the comment, Rie, and I agree, although apparently, it isn’t just air conditioning that causes the ‘heat island’ phenomenon – buildings and roads (concrete and tarmac) absorb heat during the day and retain it at night, so the city never properly cools down. Part of Tokyo’s problem is that it doesn’t have enough parks and green areas, which would help cool the city. This is one aspect of London’s town planning that has actually been very successful – as far as I know about 30% of London is covered in greenery, whereas in Tokyo it’s a lot less.

  5. Air conditioning. Don’t even get me started. In the UK it seems like a total waste of money, and yet many office buildings (including mine) sadly have it. It makes me tired and gives me a headache, and even worse in many Anglo-Saxon countries people seem to like to reduce the inside temperature the hotter it gets outside – whereas I think you want the opposite. Leaving a 17C office to find the outside world is at 36C just doesn’t make sense, and it forces you to carry additional clothing on really hot days because of the aircon. If people only insulated their houses properly, aircon would not even be needed in most places. Right, rant over.

  6. Agreed – the only reason people in Japan are keeping their air con at 28 degrees this summer is because there are electricity shortages, otherwise it would be the same – ie. like a fridge indoors and like an oven outdoors. The Japanese are starting to use insulation and double glazing a bit more though, and because they tend to knock down and rebuild rather than renovate old houses, that means they’ll probably have a higher proportion of energy efficient houses than there are in the UK within a few years.

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