Saturday, May 21, 2011

15/05 VOX POPULI: Combining modern means with tradition to beat the heat

Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a daily column that runs on Page 1 of the vernacular Asahi Shimbun.


"Karo tosen," which literally means "a furnace in summer, a fan in winter," is an old Japanese idiom that denotes something useless.

A school teacher I've known for years once told me of a girl who, when asked in a Japanese language test to explain the meaning of this idiom, answered "an endurance contest."

She must have been imagining someone sitting in front of a furnace in summer and fanning themselves in winter. Wrong as her answer was, I had to take my hat off to her quirky imagination.

The seasons come and go. A fan that's useless in winter becomes a handy thing to have around when the weather warms up.

On Friday, Tokyo was uncomfortably muggy for the temperature, and I pulled a fan down from my cluttered shelf. Mumbling apologies to it for having ignored it for so long, I was most grateful for the reprieve it brought me from the stuffy air in the office. This fan is going to be my trusty brother-in-arms this summer, which, to borrow the girl's expression, could turn into a marathon "endurance contest."

The government has set a uniform 15 percent energy conservation target for all businesses and homes serviced by Tokyo Electric Power Co. and Tohoku Electric Power Co. The Environment Ministry, which is vigorously pushing this policy, is reportedly going to urge big companies to allow their employees to come to work in what it calls “super-cool biz”attire--T-shirts and aloha shirts. I like this idea. Workers shouldn't be expected to be so dutiful that they have to grit their teeth and face an endurance contest.

In days gone by, the windows and doors of Japanese homes were kept wide open in summer. We heard all sorts of noises from the streets back then. But now, the windows and doors are sealed shut, with air conditioners keeping the houses cool and blasting hot air outside. I wonder if there is a connection between this lifestyle and the mentality of the Japanese people today.

Because of all that hot air from the air conditioners, the temperatures in the big cities have no chance of coming down at night. This makes people even more resolved to remain entrenched in their artificially cooled "strongholds" of their homes.

I miss those days when we fanned ourselves to beat the heat and enjoyed the occasional cool breeze coming in from the open windows and doors. A haiku by Hisaji Iwaki goes: "The wood-floored room of my house in my hometown/ Felt as cool as running an electric fan."

We shouldn't rely solely on artificial means to keep us cool. I wonder if people will be going retro this summer by wearing "suteteko" (loose, baggy, knee-length underpants for men), splashing their yards with water and shading their windows with climbing plants. And what about the classic "tochin" (head pillows made of porcelain) and the long, cylindrical baskets of woven bamboo, placed under bedcovers on summer nights known as "dakikago"?

Nobody can sit out an endurance contest, drenched in sweat, for too long. This summer, we need to combine modern conveniences with old tradition to beat the heat wisely.

--The Asahi Shimbun, May 14

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.

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