Air conditioners

It’s that time of year again–bonus time, when electrical appliance stores push air conditioners to people who probably already have them. According to government statistics, 90% of Japanese households already have air conditioners installed in their homes, so why do people keep buying new ones? One reason right now is that the government, in order to stimulate consumption, is offering “eco points”–credits that can be used to purchase other things later–for digital TVs, energy-saving refrigerators, and energy-saving air conditioners. The ostensible idea is to promote energy conservation, but it’s difficult to believe that is what is going to happen if everyone buys a new appliance and thus throws their old one away. This seems especially problematic when it comes to aircons, which are heavy and difficult to install and remove. After the jump, an article I wrote for the Asahi Shimbun about air conditioners that still applies.Because the march of progress is mostly a story about improved comfort, I always think of Japan’s status as a developed country in relative terms. Take the concept of “climate control.” Though people in the United States, where I grew up, think it’s a right guaranteed by the Constitution, like cheap gasoline, in Japan it’s simultaneously a necessity and a luxury, an option you can’t do without.

Central heating was available in the U.S. before I was born, but in Japan it is still rare, exotic even. The reasons I’ve been told have to do with safety and conservation, but I don’t see any difference, safety-wise, between a central heating system and the gas lines that are built into most residences; and energy conservation has more to do with proper insulation than with delivery systems.

Everyone needs to heat their home, so the thinking is, Why not make as much money as possible from this fact of life? Consequently, gas utility companies make good profits selling stand-alone devices that convert the natural gas running through your walls into heat; and the more rooms you have, the more devices you need. The march of progress guarantees that these devices are improved on a yearly basis in terms of energy efficiency and convenience. Upgrades are thus encouraged.

So is clutter. Considering how cramped most Japanese housing is, any additional object that could just as easily be incorporated into the housing itself becomes merely another obstacle to bump into. This apparently happens often. About a thousand people die every year from heating-related fires.

The majority of these accidents are caused by kerosene “stoves,” which are cheaper to use than gas heaters. But these stoves are a less expensive option only because central heating is not an option at all, and in many apartments they are banned for safety reasons, thus forcing renters to buy whatever gas heating device has been designed for that building. My present building prohibits kerosene heaters, but I also could not use the gas heater I bought for my last apartment because the system here uses hot water. I had to buy all new units.

The situation is similar at the other end of the climate control spectrum. Though home air conditioning was not widespread when I was growing up, most people in the developed world can’t live without it these days. And just like gas utilities, Japanese electronics makers and retailers have found a way to maximize people’s desire for comfort in terms of their own bottom line.

Years ago, after spending one air conditioner-less rainy season in Japan, my partner and I decided to splurge on one. In Japan, “aircons,” which both heat and cool, consist of a wall unit and an outside fan unit. When we bought ours, installation was included in the price.

When we moved several years later we learned that it would cost at least 20,000 yen to have an authorized technician come and take the air conditioner apart and then put it back together in our new residence, so we decided to do it ourselves. Big mistake. For one thing, the fan unit was heavier than a Humvee. For another, we didn’t really know what we were doing. Inadvertently we allowed the freon to escape, which is not only bad for the environment but also bad for your peace-of-mind if you actually want to use your air conditioner, because it won’t produce cool air without it.

It didn’t matter. In our new residence there was only one room where the air conditioner could be installed, and it was a room we hardly used. Then we moved again and this time hired someone to perform the transplant. We also had to pay for freon to be pumped into the unit, but by that time I was wondering whether I really needed the thing. Humankind survived millennia without air conditioning and I did fine without it for the first three decades of my life.

But I mainly rejected air conditioning for the same reason I resented having to buy heating units. I just didn’t like the fact that I was forced to share space with objects that didn’t have any business being around; and moreover I didn’t like dragging them around with me wherever I went. We didn’t bring the aircon with us the next time we moved, and I’ve felt liberated–and sweatier–ever since.

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