Wednesday, 11 February 2015

How Can We Combat the Cold in Japan?

The past couple days have been quite cold, and I've had to compensate by hiding under my kotatsu just to stay warm.  Problem is my legs are the only part of my body that I can actually fit under that thing.  My other heater has been failing to provide enough heat for my room, and that’s not because of the heater itself.  The reason is that the thin walls and floor of my apartment aren't insulated.  I said in a previous post that Japanese homes are built for summer, not winter, and that Japanese schools and students in this prefecture aren't prepared for winter.  That, in turn, affects students’ productivity in the classroom.  Therefore, I tried to think of some solutions.  Would it be possible to install insulation in the buildings?  What heating options are there?  And finally, how can Japanese students bundle up for the cold winter months?

Is insulation possible?

This question must be coupled with another: would insulation get moldy?  The answer to that question is yes, it would, and it’s all thanks to the hot and humid summer.  Hot and arid is one thing.  Humidity adds a whole new level of discomfort and threat of dehydration.  Throw in ash from the local volcano and you get a new definition of grunge fit to out-rock the music genre.  Kagoshima Prefecture’s humidity peaks in July and August with the rise and fall of the rainy season.  If you’re lucky, you’ll even be hit by a typhoon.

If you’re looking for a comparison, the humidity in my hometown in interior B.C. ranges from 33% in April to 91% in December.  Kagoshima ranges from 69% in March to 79% in June.  But humidity percentages don’t accurately show the difference between the two different climates.  Therefore, we must turn to due point, which is a better measure of how comfortable a person feels.  Lower dew points feel drier, and higher dew points feel more humid.  Williams Lake, B.C. ranges from [dry] -15°C (5°F) in December to [dry] 10°C (50°F) in July.  In contrast, Kagoshima ranges from [a bit dry] 2.3°C (36.1°F) in January to [very humid] 23.5°C (74.3°F) in August.  That 23.5°C is very uncomfortable, and it doesn't take very long to start sweating without the use of air conditioning.

Thanks to this infamous season and its wet, humid conditions, mold can be found everywhere.  Leaving it to flourish could pose a health risk.  In North America, “mold most commonly grows as a result of water damage” (Dr. Strauss, quoted in “Understanding the Causesof Fungi in Building Structures”).  In Japan, just the rainy season is enough to blacken the walls of your walk-in shower.  A fan doesn't help too much.  The only way to really combat this mold is with kabi kira or “mold killer,” a chlorine-based solution that smells like an over-purified swimming pool.  It’s very effective, and my go-to cleaning solution for any tough grunge.

Seeing as insulation molds, and no one in their right mind would be interested in breaking in the walls of their home to attack it with kabi kira, it looks like insulation isn't a good option.

What heating options are there?

I didn't realize how much I would miss central heating when I came to Japan.  Heating your house can be VERY expensive.  My electric bill goes from ¥2000 in spring and fall to ¥5000 in summer (thanks to air conditioning) to more than ¥10,000 in winter (thanks to heating).  And that’s just to heat one room!  I primarily use two heaters.  One is the electric heater I mentioned earlier.  The other is my kotatsu, commonplace in every Japanese home.  The thin walls of my apartment fail to trap heat, and I’m left with jacking up my electric bill just to stay warm.

Schools use kerosene heaters.  They are...somewhat effective, but I’m sure that gas smell can’t be good for your health.  Central heating would require major renovation work, and because there’s no insulation, it’s pretty much useless trying to keep the entire school warm.

So, looks like proper heating is out of the question as well due to its high cost.

How can Japanese students bundle up for the winter months?

I said in a previous blog entry that Japanese students wear school uniforms.  Junior High Schools have summer and winter uniforms, but those winter uniforms don’t work for cold weather.  Students can wear clothes underneath, but they must be the right colour.  (A colleague of mine once saw a student getting reprimanded by a teacher for wearing the wrong colour of undershirt to school.  As if forgetting to your homework was bad enough.)  Rules at some schools forbid students to walk around with their hands in their pockets, and hokkairo, specialized heat pads, are to be kept out of sight during class.

Remember when I talked about cold temperature and productivity?  Well, my students’ fingers are so frozen that writing is a challenge.  Therefore, I’ve come up with some solutions in relation to clothing.

First, allow students to use their hokkairo hand warmers during class and to put their hands in their pockets.  If they can warm their fingers, they can take down notes a lot faster.  Second, allow students to wear neck warmers/scarves and finger-less gloves.  Neck warmers/scarves are a no-brainer.  I often wear a scarf to school (you can get away with so much when you’re a foreigner), and it makes a huge difference in comfort.  I also have a pair of finger-less gloves that I bought for dirt cheap at the ¥100 store, and they don’t give me hand cramps when I perform various tasks.  Better yet, let students put their hand warmers inside their gloves.  Lastly, provide proper winter uniforms, or extra layers that can be shed when the day warms up.  Students could wear warmer jackets, and girls could wear warmer leggings.  If neck warmers and scarves aren't possible, provide turtlenecks to shield their skin from that biting cold air.

To conclude, better clothing is the only plausible solution I could come up with to combat the cold.  If schools in Kagoshima were a little more lenient, students might show higher productivity and therefore better test scores because of proper preparedness.  The same sense of caution during the hot and humid summer should be used for the cold winter.  Just take it from me, a Canadian, who forsakes school rules and dresses in layers because she’s always cold.


  1. It's unfortunate that clothing seems to be the only solution. I was always flabbergasted when my students rode their bikes in the winter, wearing only their school uniforms(and whatever underlayers). Has nobody heard of jackets?! Also, I recently read in a publication from my heating provider, that kerosene heaters should not be used as a heating source aka avoid death by carbon monoxide poisoning!
    Japanese schools really have to be more flexible and allow their students basic comforts like staying warm in the winter. Same goes for the summer months-cold might decrease productivity as your body fights for warmth rather than knowledge, but extreme heat also turns your brain into mush and kids become zombies. Why the heck are they not allowed to drink water during class?!

    1. Death by kerosene heaters. They probably use them to avoid the high cost of electric heaters. The clothing solution is the only one I could find. The cost for hokkairo heat pads also adds up after a while. Packages don't come with that many in them. Also on a side note, I have one school that provides hot green tea to students during January at least.
      As for summer, water bottles during class is a great idea. At least the classrooms have fans on the ceiling, and one of my schools even has air conditioning in every classroom.

  2. Wow, you are in Japan? That is so very cool! You have a nice blog setup, by the way!

    1. Yeah, I've been here for 3 years. You can admire blogger for the setup. Much easier to pick a template than come up with something new myself.