New Shinkansen comes up short

While we’re in the mood to talk about high speed express trains, we should discuss the West Kyushu Shinkansen, which opened for business on Sept. 23. Its most notorious feature as far as the media is concerned is that it’s the shortest Shinkansen line, at least for the time being: 66 kilometers long, connecting Takeo Onsen and Nagasaki stations in as little at 23 minutes, having replaced the Kamome limited express train. In fact, the new Shinkansen, which will run 44 round trips a day, has appropriated the Kamome name, probably to make locals feel more familiar with something they likely didn’t see much need for; or, at least, not in its present form.

JR Kyushu, which operates the new train, makes a big deal in its advertising of the fact that the Kamome Shinkansen will reduce the journey from Hakata in Fukuoka, the main Kyushu hub, to Nagasaki by 30 minutes. However, the new line does not connect directly to the main Kyushu Shinkansen line. It’s actually completely independent and self-contained, meaning that it only exists between Takeo Onsen and Nagasaki. To get from Takeo Onsen to Hakata, you transfer at Takeo Onsen to the Relay Kamome, which is not a Shinkansen and doesn’t have a connection to the main Kyushu Shinkansen line either. In order for the new Shinkansen to connect directly to the Kyushu Shinkansen line, a new route would have to be made from Takeo Onsen to Shin Tosu station on the Kyushu Line, a distance of about 50 kilometers, and while JR Kyushu has said that it wants to someday build such a line, there are no plans at present to do so. That’s because Saga Prefecture, through which the connecting line would pass, doesn’t want to pay for any more construction. 

Why it doesn’t want to pay for something that would seem to add value to its infrastructure is an interesting, complicated story. Though JR Kyushu, like all JR group companies, is privately owned, it can’t really operate without considerable assistance from the central government, which guarantees the huge amounts of money necessary for constructing Shinkansen lines. The West Kyushu line cost ¥620 billion to construct, which was 20 percent more than the initial estimate. Much of that had to be covered by the central government and Nagasaki and Saga Prefectures.

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Make Mine Maglev (3)

When last we visited the maglev Chuo Shinkansen, or “linear motor car” in local parlance, construction had been delayed in Shizuoka Prefecture, where the governor, Heita Kawakatsu, had insisted work not proceed until the region’s water supply was addressed. If you want details about that particular problem, see our previous post on the matter here, but the problem itself hasn’t gone away in the two subsequent years, which is a long time for this particular project, already delayed significantly by other problems. 

According to a Sept. 14 article in the Asahi Shimbun, Shin Kaneko, the president of JR Tokai, which is building the train line, has pledged to address the issue of “assuring water resources and conservation of the environment” surrounding the Shizuoka section of the line, which is only 8.9 kilometers in length and all underground. In order to deliver these assurances a meeting was held between Kaneko and Kawakatsu on Sept. 13, but the Asahi reports that nothing much was accomplished at the meeting, their first in two years and three months. Shizuoka’s main gripe is about the water in the Oi River, which is used by residents, and Kawakatsu has insisted that JR Tokai replace any water that is “lost” during construction, a demand that, on the surface at least, sounds difficult though JR Tokai has tentatively agreed, probably because the delay has become untenable and they have to say something to get things moving again. After all, JR Tokai still has 2027 set for completion of the maglev between Tokyo and Nagoya. For his part, Kawakatsu says adamantly that he is not “against” the maglev—Shizuoka finally joined the construction promotion group in July, the last prefecture affected by the maglev to do so. By all means, he wants to see it up and running. But given that Shizuoka doesn’t benefit from it—there will be no maglev Chuo Shinkansen station in the prefecture—he definitely isn’t going to give up something for nothing. 

The matter was covered during a recent discussion on the web news show Democracy Times. Apparently, Kawakatsu made a remark to the effect that the maglev project should shoot for a more attainable short-term goal, like starting partial operation between Kanagawa and Yamanashi prefectures. Given the train’s high speed and the paucity of stations on that stretch of the maglev line, this almost sounds as if Kawakatsu is pulling somebody’s leg. Would anybody use the maglev for such short distances? The governor of Kanagawa was not amused and complained about the remark. As it happened, Kawakatsu had already gone to see for himself how construction was coming along in Kanagawa Prefecture and visited the Sagamihara Station construction site. There, he found out that JR Tokai is planning to build a railyard near the station that hasn’t even been started yet. Given that it will take 11 years to build, it would seem that there’s no way the yard could be completed by 2027. What’s worse is that JR Tokai hasn’t even finalized the purchase of all the land needed. Buying land has always been one of the most difficult aspects of the maglev project, which is why in Tokyo the line is being built 60 meters below the surface. Landowners’ rights don’t go that deep. According to Asahi Shimbun, this matter, which Kawakatsu wasn’t aware of before his inspection trip, caused him to become even more doubtful about the whole project. 

And there’s more. An Aug. 30 article in Nikkei xTech explained how the huge machines used to dig the tunnels—which make up more than 80 percent of the maglev line—have been breaking down. Already, the machine digging the tunnel in the Shinagawa area has broken, or, more specifically, the part of the machine that injects the chemicals into the excavated soil and rock in order to make them easier to remove, has been damaged, and it can’t be fixed until “after 2023.” Also, the massive bit on the machine that is being used to remove the temporary concrete retaining walls of a vertical tunnel in Aichi Prefecture has also been damaged. Nikkei xTech points out that because so much of the maglev tunnel construction is at depths never before attempted, the whole construction process is almost experimental. In fact, the late JR Tokai president Yoshiyuki Kasai, who lobbied for the maglev project, used the construction of an automobile tunnel through the Hida region of the Japan Alps as a means of convincing the land ministry that construction of the maglev was feasible. The construction of the Hida tunnel, which is 10.7 km in length, was considered extremely difficult due to the weak rock structure, high ground water content, and height of the mountain, and it took 8-and-a-half years to complete. The government’s go-ahead for the maglev was granted in 2007, the same year the Hida Tunnel was finished. But as one reporter on Democracy Times pointed out, if it took more than 8 years to dig a tunnel 10.7 km long, how long will it take to complete the whole maglev route, which goes through similar geological environments? Obviously, 2027 is out of the question, but will anyone living today actually live long enough to ride the thing? 

Harumi Pre-flag

While searching for any news about the current state of the Harumi Flag condo complex in Tokyo’s Chuo Ward, we came across an older related article with detailed information we weren’t aware of. As we’ve written here before, Harumi Flag was originally the athletes village for the 2020 Olympics, after which the apartments were renovated into condo units, many of which had already been sold. Because of the one-year delay for the Games, people who had put down deposits and made plans to move in had to put off those plans for at least an extra year, thus causing a lot of grumbling among the buyers. 

According to a special report that appeared in July 2019 on the Min-IREN website, a consumer advocacy and social justice concern, people who already lived in the Harumi area of Chuo Ward on the waterfront had filed a lawsuit against the Tokyo prefectural government. The reporter was Nobuyuki Kitaoka, who often writes for the muckraking weekly Kinyobi, and he makes the point that the lawsuit had/has similarities to the 2017 scandal surrounding Moritomo Gakuen, the educational company that bought land in Osaka from the central government for a fraction of its assessed value, thus setting off speculation that this special deal was due to the fact that the wife of then prime minister Shinzo Abe was an honorary principal of the elementary school that Moritomo planned to build on the property. Apparently, the developers who would build the athletes village for the Olympics and then redevelop the complex into luxury condominiums also got the land at a fraction of its worth, and existing residents wanted to know why. According to Kitaoka, Moritomo paid only 20 percent of what the land it bought from the central government was worth, while the developers of Harumi Flag paid only 10 percent of the value to the Tokyo prefectural government, which owned it. Located only 3 kilometers from Ginza, the market value of the Harumi land was ¥959,000 per square meter, but Tokyo sold it to a consortium of 11 developers, including Mitsui Fudosan Residential, for only ¥97,000 per square meter. This consortium ended up paying a total of ¥12.96 billion for 133,900 square meters. 

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Money out of mind

As with many families, my partner and I contribute to the living situation of an aged relative, who is currently living in a facility for seniors. We share this contribution with other members of her family, and in addition to paying directly for things like laundry service and supplemental meals, we also manage her pension and other social service income, which are directly deposited into her savings account. Another member of the woman’s family has the bank ATM card, with which that person can make money transfers to cover her care. In our case, we have the passbook, which can also be used to transfer money but not to withdraw cash from the account. Often we make necessary payments on her behalf and then transfer money from her account to reimburse ourselves.

This system is not uncommon, but it isn’t really legitimate, either, since we are not registered proxies for the woman. Because she has a cognitive disability owing to her age, she cannot handle her assets herself and thus relies on family to manage her finances, but legally speaking we—meaning not only my partner and I, but the other members of her family—should have registered as proxies with power of attorney well before she started losing her mental faculties. Now it is too late, and we are basically gaming the system. No one has prevented us from doing this because no one has complained, but recently banks have started phasing out passbooks in order to save money and paper. All records are being transferred to online systems, so we are afraid that once the current passbook fills up, we will not be able to get a new one, and thus will not have access to her account, since we can’t apply for an extra ATM card without her written compliance, which, legally, she can’t give because of her mental state.

A recent article that appeared in the Asahi Shimbun discussed this problem in more general terms, and it appears that our dilemma is one that many families also face. In principle, cash savings, real estate, and other assets owned by people who lose their cognitive functions cannot be touched except by people who have been granted such access by a court. The Civil Code says that if a person has no ability to make judgements regarding legal actions, those actions are not recognized. According to Mitsui Sumitomo Trust Bank, as of 2020, the amount of cash in Japanese bank accounts that has been frozen because their signatories have lost cognitive faculties amounts to ¥175 trillion. In terms of real estate and other assets, ¥80 trillion. That’s the equivalent of 8 percent of all household assets in Japan. By 2040, frozen assets are projected to reach ¥349 trillion, or 12 percent of all household assets. “Frozen” means that this money cannot be spent or otherwise circulated in the economy, which will slow down even further as a result. 

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Albatross by the sea

Akiko Matsumoto (Mainichi Shimbun)

In this blog we often write about how Japanese houses lose their value quickly and become money pits, but we’re usually talking about housing tract structures and prefab or manufactured homes. Recently, however, there was a minor celebrity story in the news that illustrated how this phenomenon even applies to what many would consider legacy housing, meaning quality homes that were built to last multiple generations.

An article that appeared in the Mainicishi Shimbun July 16 told the tale of enduring TV talent Akiko Matsumoto and her difficulties in maintaining the family home, which is located in the mountainous part of Takamatsu City on the island of Shikoku. Matsumoto’s father, who worked for a construction company, had the house built at a cost of ¥30 million in 1972 when she was 6 years old. Though the price included the land, which was located on the side of a hill with a breathtaking view of both the sea and the city of Takamatsu, ¥30 million was a lot in those days. The one-story house was custom built using expensive Japanese cypress and the carpenters were miyadaiku, meaning craftsman skilled in the art of shrine construction, which does not use any nails but instead incorporates special joinery technology. From the description in the newspaper it was a magnificent traditional style Japanese house, not quite a kominka but of the same pedigree.

Such a house is meant to be handed down to one’s children, but Matsumoto’s brother, who is 10 years older, moved to Tokyo for his work 3 years after the house was completed. Matsumoto herself left Takamatsu after she graduated from junior high school to seek her fame and fortune in the capital as a singer, and initially met with some success in that regard. She made her idol debut in 1983 at the age of 17. However, there was too much competition at the time and eventually her management started selling her as a variety show guest because of her sense of humor and knack for celebrity impersonations. She became an emcee in her own right during the initial variety show boom of the 90s and made a lot of money. 

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Japanese laws make abortion an economic issue

In light of yesterday’s U.S. Supreme Court decision to allow individual states to outlaw abortion, we are here posting an article we wrote about Japanese abortion practices in 2012 in our money blog for The Japan Times. Though the article is still on the newspaper’s website, it seems to be behind the paywall and not necessarily in its original complete form. Of course, some of the information contained herein have changed in the past decade, especially with regard to contraception and non-surgical forms of pregnancy termination. We plan to write a new article about abortion in Japan in the coming weeks, but, essentially, the legal and financial matters mentioned below are still in place.

Contrary to what most people believe, abortion in Japan is not legal. The reason abortions are performed freely in Japan–officially about 210,000 in 2010, though there certainly were more–is due to amendments to the daitaizai (illegal abortion) law. These amendments, implemented shortly after World War II, allow for a pregnant woman to abort her child if the pregnancy threatens her life or health, or if the woman is financially unable to raise the child. It is assumed, for legal purposes, that the vast majority of women who undergo abortions do so for economic reasons. However, since there is no real provision for having women state her reasons when seeking an abortion, and no woman in Japan has been prosecuted for aborting a fetus since World War II, the procedure is considered effectively legal. It is also quite expensive. Unless the abortion is being carried out for health reasons, national insurance will not cover it. This situation has lead to a paradox: Most women in Japan who seek abortions ostensibly do so because of financial hardship, but are nevertheless forced to pay a great deal of money to have those abortions performed.

According to our own Internet survey of gynecology services and comments on various blogs and websites, the cost of an abortion up to the twelfth week of pregnancy ranges from ¥80,000 to ¥150,000, which is only the cost of the procedure and does not include consultation fees and medication. However, after the twelfth week of pregnancy, the cost increases considerably. Abortions performed between the twelfth and 22nd week of pregnancy cost between ¥300,000 and ¥500,000. Also, if the patient suffers from a chronic condition that could complicate the procedure, such as asthma, she is required to undergo the procedure at a general clinic, which tends to be more expensive than a women’s clinic or a gynecology office. Of course, if a physician concludes that the pregnancy threatens the woman’s life or health, insurance can be used for the abortion, and if the cost of the operation goes above a certain level, she can even receive a refund for any money she pays out of pocket. Even if the cost does not rise above that designated level, if she files an income tax return she can deduct the cost of her abortion on her return, including money she paid for sanitary napkins and even the taxi fare to the clinic. But this is only if the procedure was done for health reasons. Other costs that apply but usually aren’t mentioned have to do with the aborted fetus. If an abortion (or miscarriage) takes place after the eleventh week of pregnance, the attending physician has to fill out a death report that the mother files at the local city office. She then has to pay for cremation. There are also optional costs for mizuko kuyo, or memorial services for aborted babies, which start at about ¥40,000. 

The high cost of pregnancy termination figured into a recent survey carried out by the Asahi Shimbun, which sent questionnaires to 932 medical institutions that offer abortions, of which 343 responded. The two most common methods for surgical abortions are suction and D&C (dilation and curettage). The former method literally vacuums the fetus out of the uterus. With the latter method (soha-ho), the doctor cuts the fetus into pieces and scrapes the pieces out through the cervix. According to the Asahi article, suction is the preferred method in most developed countries, while in Japan most gynecologists use the D&C method. Of the survey respondents, 11 percent said they offer only suction, 35 percent D&C, and 48 percent both. In 2003 the World Health Organization released guidelines for “safe abortions” that recommended either suction or the so-called abortion pill (RU-486 or mifepristone). D&C was recommended during the early stages of pregnancy only when the other two methods were not available. The article also said that the American Centers for Disease Control has stated that D&C results in 2 to 3 times more serious side effects than the suction method and that used properly the abortion pill is perhaps the safest method. 

The abortion pill is available in most developed countries but not Japan, and the Asahi article implies that there is little chance of it being approved in the near future. Though the pill is expensive–in the U.S., it’s about $500–it is still cheaper than a surgical abortion. There is no indication in the article as to the relative costs of the two surgical methods, but the writer says the reason for the preference for D&C in Japan is that “most abortions are performed by older doctors who prefer to use the method they’re accustomed to.” One gynecologist quoted in the article says that “Japanese doctors” prefer D&C because “they are more skillfull with their hands.” The Japan Gynecological Academy reported only 21 “accidents” related to abortion procedures in 2010, but this figure is not reliable since most abortions are not covered by insurance and so reporting is not thorough.

We contacted the director of a women’s clinic in Tokyo to ask about the Asahi article. The director answered on the condition that we not use her name or the name of the clinic, and she took issue with almost everything the article stated. The WHO recommendations were misrepresented, she said, since they were mainly targeted at developing countries, many of which do not permit abortion. In these countries the suction method is preferable because it is easier. Doctors in those countries may not possess the skills necessary for a D&C, which the director says is a more efficient method of abortion when carried out properly. She also believes D&C is safer. As to whether one method is less expensive than another, she says they’re about the same in Japan, but in any case since they aren’t covered by insurance each institution sets its own price for abortion procedures. She offered no opinion on the abortion pill and whether the government would ever approve it, but she did imply that the risks were underappreciated. If the government ever did approve its use she believed it would be very expensive since pharmaceutical companies would be free to set a high price, citing the cost of so-called emergency contraception pills in Japan as evidence. The cheaper pills cost ¥5,000 for two, while the more expensive ones (less side effects) are ¥15,000 for two. She said gynecologists remain “astonished” at these prices. In the U.S., they cost between $10 and $70.

It should be noted that the number of abortions continues to drop every year (during the 1950s the number averaged a million a year) thanks to the introduction of the low dose birth control pill more than a decade ago, even though the health ministry reports that in 2009 only 3 percent of women used it as a contraception method. The cost of using the pill in Japan runs about ¥3,000 a month and also is not covered by insurance if used to prevent pregnancy.

Til death traps

One of the main themes, if not the central theme, of this blog is that Japanese homes don’t hold their value over time the way they usually do in other developed countries, and while this situation does have a silver lining in that homes are affordable to a larger cross section of people, including young families, in the long run it makes it difficult for retired people to expect much in the way of a return on the investment they made in their home, which is usually the most expensive thing they own by a huge margin. But this feature of Japanese economic life has even broader effects on the quality of life for seniors, as revealed in a June 5 article in the Nihon Keizai Shimbun.

Certainly the main advantage of owning one’s home anywhere is that once the mortgage is paid off no one can kick you out. Regardless of income, a person who owns their home will always have a roof over their head. In Japan, this notion is usually conveyed by referring to the house or condominium as the person’s “final home” in that the person can live there until they die. The theme of the Nikkei article is that even this concept is no longer guaranteed or, at least, not assured in the way that most seniors thought it would be. The main reason is that the cost of renovations for homes has increased by 20 percent over the past ten years on average. This increase, combined with the fact that Japanese people are living longer, makes the possession of homes in Japan more difficult for people on fixed incomes. 

According to a survey conducted by the justice ministry, the home ownership rate of households with two or more members and whose head of household is over 60 is above 90 percent, which is quite an impressive portion and speaks to the success of Japanese housing policy in how it has promoted home ownership over the years. In practical terms, it means the people who live in these households have a “final home” that should remove any economic anxiety from their twilight years, but Nikkei says that isn’t the case. For one thing, standalone houses in Japan tend to need extensive renovation work done on exteriors and roofs every 15 to 30 years, depending on when the house was built—the older the house, the more frequent such renovations are needed, and each time they are carried out they require at least ¥9 million. In the past year alone, costs for renovation have gone up substantially owing to inflation and the world distribution crisis. These costs are not expected to go down.

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High anxiety

Last week, the media was filled with reports on Tokyo’s latest projections regarding what residents could expect if a major earthquake struck the capital. The parameters used for the simulation were a 7.3M quake that occurred directly beneath the prefecture’s 23 wards, with a shindo reading of 6+ for the city center, and shindo 7 for riverbank and coastal areas. It would occur in the wintertime with wind speeds of 8m/second. For the most part, the news was relatively good in that the number of deaths (6,200) and amount of damage (194,000 structures) estimated were less than in past projections—30 percent less, as a matter of fact. 

In detail, 50 percent of the deaths would be caused by collapsed houses, and 40 percent the result of fires. In both cases, the houses involved would be older wooden structures that are densely concentrated, so the prefectural government has said—not for the first time—that it will work harder on providing subsidies for the rebuilding of such houses to make them less vulnerable to earthquakes. 

An important factor in the lower casualty and damage numbers estimated by the report is improved quake-proofing since the last report was compiled. The portion of houses that have been quake-proofed since 2010 increased by 10.8 percent, which means 92 percent of all homes in Tokyo have some form of quake-proofing. In addition, the total area of densely packed wooden houses has decreased by 46 percent since 2012. The government now estimates that 4.53 million workers who live outside the capital would not be able to return home on the day of a major earthquake, and of the city’s residents 2.99 million would have to evacuate their homes. But while these numbers sound high, they are down by 12 percent from the last report. 

However, there is one sector where matters have not improved: high-rise residential apartment buildings. As we’ve written in this blog numerous times in the past, so-called “tower mansions” have unique problems when it comes to earthquakes that have nothing really to do with their ability to withstand the tremor itself. All multi-story buildings in Japan, whether for commercial or residential use, are constructed to the world’s strictest quake-proofing standards, and are expected to maintain their integrity even during a catastrophic temblor. The problems occur after the shaking, and none have been solved in the past decade while at the same time there has been a 30 percent increase in the number of high-rise residential apartment buildings and condos during that time. At present, there are some 600 “tower mansions” in Tokyo, which are defined as multi-residence buildings that are at least 45 meters tall. 

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The Lie of the Land

Here is another chapter from our unpublished book about housing in Japan based on our own experience of trying to buy a home. This one is about residential land usage.

Example of a private road built for a future fukurokoji housing development

“It’s about the size of a cat’s forehead” – proverbial Japanese rejoinder when asked how much land a person owns

The real estate agent picked us up at the train station in a company car with long scratches on the side, probably inflicted during attempts to park in tight, unfamiliar spaces. We drove to the property through dense suburban sprawl overshadowed by pylons and interrupted by small plots of farmland. 

The two-story house had royal blue siding and was sixteen years old. The owner moved out two years ago. The wallpaper was discolored, the laminate wood floors spongey, the second floor “veranda” filled with debris. The price: ¥5.8 million. We estimated it would take at least ¥6 million to make it livable, but ¥12 million for the whole thing seemed too much. Moreover, anyone who bought the house would have to assume the lease for the land, which was ¥38,000 a month.

The agent explained that the same landlord owned the property under the other four houses on the street. The owners all had them built at the same time and paid the same rent. The leases were 50 years, which meant the owner of the blue house was still paying rent even though he didn’t live there any more, and would continue paying rent until he found someone to buy the house and take over the lease. He originally wanted ¥12 million, but had come down to ¥5.8 million about a year ago. We asked what the options were if he couldn’t find a buyer.

“Oh, he could easily rent this place, depending on how much he asked,” the agent said. “Many people in this situation do that.”

This concept of owning a house on rented land, in Japanese called shakuchiken, isn’t uncommon. According to the land ministry, between 1993 and 2007, 35,492 single-family homes and 18,937 condominium units were built on rented land, a trend that peaked in 2001, when many companies in the Tokyo Metropolitan area starting selling off property, fueling a development boom characterized by cheaper condos. When prices rose after 2005, shakuchiken started becoming popular again. The agent said that the number of people building houses on rented land was increasing, “but you don’t see so many for sale.”

As a rule, the value of homes in Japan depreciates rapidly, but land is still expensive, and not just in urban and suburban areas. Because of usage laws that make it difficult to shift land designated for agriculture to residences, even the countryside can be costly. 

We had decided to check out shakuchiken after talking to a friend, also self-employed, who had a house built on rented land seven years earlier. He and his family wanted to live in Kamakura, the trendy center of traditional culture located on the Miura peninsula just south of Tokyo, but were looking to rent since they didn’t think they could afford to buy a house there. A real estate agent directed him to a plot of land being developed by a housing company. The plot was owned by a local Buddhist temple.

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Guilty as charged

Storage heater and friend

In the previous post we talked about our decision to go all-electric from the perspective of not wanting to deal with gas any more. However, this reasoning should not be taken as an unconditional endorsement of all-electric houses. Electricity is what it is—electrons moving in a certain way to transfer energy—and is separate in meaning from how it is produced. Natural gas is a substance whose mining and combustion have negative effects on the biosphere. Electricity is not a substance, so the issue surrounding electric power is how it is derived, and since we weren’t going to install solar panels—a choice that, at the time, was based on our financial outlook, and one we now regret—we assumed that we would have to buy all our electricity from the monopoly that supplied it in our area, Tepco, because at the time the energy market had not yet been liberalized. So it was a devil’s bargain, since at the time (2014) Tepco generated electricity chiefly from burning fossil fuels, though it was no secret to anyone that the company’s main wish was to bring back all the nuclear reactors it shut down in the wake of the Fukushima meltdown. We weren’t comfortable with either of these energy sources, and therefore had to live with the fact that we would (by buying thermally derived power) or could (by buying nuclear power) be paying into a system that was in some way unsustainable. 

In terms of climate control, summertime wasn’t a problem since we haven’t used air conditioners for years, mainly as a matter of preference. In fact, one of the criteria for choosing a place to build a house was relatively cooler temperatures during the summer. Given that we still opted to live in the Kanto region, that wasn’t very easy, but we managed to find a plot of land within a wooded area that was two to three degrees cooler on average than surrounding areas. So the main problem was heating the house in the winter with electricity, which can be expensive. We opted for storage heaters, which tend to be more popular in northern Japan and along the Japan Sea. The units are large boxes filled with ceramic bricks that heat up at night using electricity and then radiate this stored energy during the day. This method takes advantage of two phenomena—the human sleep cycle, and Japanese power companies’ practice of charging less for electricity at night than they do in the daytime. This latter point is based on the idea that large power generators are always online, but that the electricity they produce at night mostly goes unused, so businesses and homes that can use that surplus power pay less for it. Of course, our storage heating solution did nothing to help the environment, but at least it used power that would otherwise have gone to waste. Our water heating system, called Eco-Cute (a play on the Japanese word kyuto, or “hot water supply”), used the same cycle—heat the water at night for use in the daytime. We’ve been happy with the storage heating system. There is one unit on the first floor and another on the second floor, and by adjusting the amount of energy absorbed depending on projected temperatures, we’ve enjoyed a uniformly warm house throughout all the rooms during the winters we’ve lived here, something we, as a couple, have never really enjoyed in Japan, as anyone who has lived here for any length of time knows well. Moreover, we calculate that we don’t pay anymore to heat our home exclusively with electricity than we did to heat our home with gas, kerosene, and/or electricity in the past. 

But that may not last much longer. We recently received a notice from Tepco outlining payment changes for the future. The notice is supposed to be good news, since it essentially says that unit fees for electricity will be going down. However, the nighttime discount that we take advantage of for our heating uses will be discontinued. We were a bit taken back by this development, since the whole point of the storage heating system is to tap that surplus energy, but then we realized what it was all about. Some years ago, when we started writing about energy issues in Japan, especially with regard to nuclear energy following the 2011 meltdown, we learned that the nighttime discount was originally implemented because of nuclear energy. Reactors cannot easily be shut or powered down, and thus, unless they have to be serviced for whatever reason, they always run at full capacity. Thermal power stations that use fossil fuels—furnaces, to be exact—can be shut off or powered down more readily. So the nighttime discount became a normalized business practice in Japan because nuclear power by definition always produces a large capacity surplus at night. After the Fukushima meltdown, Japan shut off its nuclear reactors, and only 10 have come back online since, so the reasons for nighttime discounts are no longer as compelling, even though thermal power also produces a nighttime surplus. More importantly, as renewable energy becomes widespread, nighttime discounts become meaningless, especially with regard to solar power—the sun doesn’t shine at night, so there’s no excess power being generated. None of these functional aspects make our storage heating system any less effective in the task it was developed to perform, which is heat our house, but it does change the whole economic rationale for the system. 

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