JAPAN: Beating the heat by saving juice


TOKYO — The central government has asked civil servants to wear T-shirts and Hawaiian shirts instead of suits and ties.

Businesses such as Hitachi and Kyocera are growing vines to cover factory walls — and are asking their employees to do the same at home. A sign at one Tokyo pub sums up the mood of the times: “Save Electricity — Drink More Beer.”

Despite enduring some of the hottest weather on record, Japanese are cutting their consumption of electricity with patriotic zeal. “Setsuden” — saving electricity — has become the buzzword of the summer. In June, demand for electricity was down 5 percent nationwide, compared to last year. What’s more, the Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s service area that includes Tokyo saw a 10 percent drop in demand and northeastern Japan achieved a 13 percent drop, according to an association of power companies. Meanwhile, Japan’s weather office said temperatures in late June were more than 7 Fahrenheit degrees above average, the highest recorded since at least 1961.

At the government’s urging, Japanese businesses and residents have been working together to reduce energy consumption in the wake of March’s tsunami, which hobbled the nuclear power plant at Fukushima. The tidal wave not only rendered Fukushima’s reactors inoperable but also prompted officials to shut down many of country’s other reactors over safety concerns. Only 19 of Japan’s 54 nuclear reactors currently are online, drastically reducing the country’s ability to produce electricity.

The central government has ordered ordered major corporations in the Tokyo area to reduce power consumption by 15 percent or else face fines of up to $12,000 and has asked households to pitch in as well. The government of Yamagata, a northern province, said on its official website that the region cut its electric consumption by 19 percent on July 7 after the central government had asked businesses and families to stay in one room, close curtains to block sunlight, and either switch off their air conditioners or raise the temperature settings on their thermostats during the peak period between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m.

To wean themselves off energy-hogging air conditioners, Japanese imported a record 1.24 million electrical fans in May, a 70 percent jump over last year, according to the national customs office. But some Japanese have been overzealous about turning off air conditioners.

From June 1 to July 10, at least 26 people died of heatstroke, compared with six during the same period last year, according to the Fire and Disaster Management Agency. The number of heatstroke victims taken to hospitals by ambulance tripled, to 12,973, and about half were older than 65. Those numbers are staggering, considering that last summer’s heat broke records and that 1,718 people died of various reasons related to the extreme heat. The Health Ministry said about 80 percent of victims were over 65 and about half were discovered dead in their homes. This summer, the metro Toyko government plans to send social workers to check on many senior citizens in their homes.

“Power-saving also requires sensitivity to heatstroke risk,” Prime Minister Naoto Kan told parliament earlier this month. The Health Ministry has advised people to drink water, use fans and air conditioners, and make sure their body temperatures don’t pass the dangerous levels above 102 degrees Fahrenheit. The ministry also advised construction workers to take salt and extra water, even if they show no symptoms of dehydration. The Agricultural Ministry, meanwhile, has asked farmers to work shorter hours — advice rarely heard in Japan’s workaholic culture.

Though Japanese politicians couldn’t agree to adopt daylight saving time, many companies such as Sony, Sharp, Canon and the Tokyo Stock Exchange are starting and leaving work an hour earlier. Major automakers such as Toyota and Nissan began a campaign this month to save electricity during peak demand periods by putting employees to work on night shifts and Saturdays and Sundays, and giving them days off on Thursdays and Fridays until the end of summer in September.

“This is an emergency,” said Yuji Kishi, a senior manager at Nissan who took reporters on a tour of a plant near Tokyo. He said office workers are starting days early, at 8 a.m. Employees working overtime are turning off lights in some rooms and gathering on specified floors to save electricity at the company’s headquarters in Yokohama.

Meanwhile, the government has advised companies to look favorably on young job seekers who don’t wear the typical, black “recruit suit” this summer. In Tokyo, many people are putting ice packs in bandanas around their necks, or blasting their skin with sprays that cause a tingling, freezing sensation.

And at Fukushima city’s main train station, less than 50 miles from a meltdown at the nuclear power plant, a puppet of a ghost hangs by a sign asking people to save electricity. Partly a joke by railway staff, the effigy sends a strong message to the rest of Japan: Save energy or else.

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