The Japanese Way: No insulation, no central heating

Kotatsu1

Kotatsu Kitty says hello. (Photo by Matthew McVickar / Published under Flickr Creative Commons License CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Editor’s Note: Today’s column debuts a recurring feature called The Japanese Way. In this monthly column, Courtney Coppernoll will attempt to shed light on how and why certain aspects of Japanese culture differ from our own.

By Courtney Coppernoll

So, you’re a foreigner living in Japan. You’re not exactly sure how you ended up here – one minute you have no idea what you’re going to do after graduation and the next you’re telling three strangers in suits about your lifelong dream to be an English teacher – but here you are nonetheless. You now find yourself in a strange, strange land and you’ve got questions that need answering.

For instance, why are ATMs closed after 5 p.m.? Why is there mayonnaise on your pizza? And why on earth is that vending machine over there filled with lacy underwear? On second thought, you don’t mind that last one so much. Whatever your quandary may be my fine, foreign friend, there is no need to fret. I’m here to put an end to your Japan-induced befuddlement once and for all.*

*Note: If you remain in your befuddled state after reading my articles it is almost certainly due to some failure of communication between yourself and I, not because the article failed to answer your query.

Each month I’ll address some aspect of Japanese living that has a tendency to confuse and/or frustrate… well, anyone who’s not Japanese.

Let me make it clear, though, that the purpose of these articles is not to discuss what is and is not “correct” about the Japanese way of life. Instead, it is my hope that, even if I fail to solve a problem you may have (refer to above notation), that you will at least have a better understanding of why the Japanese do things the way they do after reading my column. At best, I hope you’ll develop a sense of humor about something you previously found frustrating. So, with that in mind, let’s get started!

With colder weather settling in, I thought it’d be appropriate to kick off my column with an age-old complaint made by many foreigners living in Japan: the lack of insulation and central heating in Japanese homes and schools. After all, in many other first world nations, housing regulations make insulation a mandatory part of building construction and trying to sell a house without central heating or air conditioning would be like trying to sell water to a fish (i.e. he might buy it if he were suffocating).

Yet, the Japanese continue to build homes and schools with single-pane glass (which allows the free flow of air between indoors and outdoors) and no insulation. Instead, they make do with localized heating devices such as the kotatsu and kerosene heaters. To be fair, some housing in northern parts of Japan (such as Hokkaido) is required to have central heating, and most department stores and office buildings have it as well, but the majority of Japanese people continue to heat only one or two rooms of their homes during winter.

So, why is it that Japan – a nation touted for its technological advances – lacks what many other countries consider a basic element of building design? Well, after polling many of my (extremely confused, but helpful) Japanese co-workers, I have not just one, but several possible reasons why the Japanese do not insulate or centrally heat their homes and schools.

• The Cost Factor:

Almost every person I talked to mentioned the high cost of central heating as the main reason for not having it in homes and schools. Expense is a factor in other countries as well (my parents’ electric bill goes up more than 50 percent during the winter months), but it seems to be an expense most Japanese can live without. One of my friends even suggested that central heating wastes money because you may be paying to heat an entire house where you’re only actually using one or two rooms. Some websites also claim that the lack of insulation is a way for Japanese construction companies to save money by building houses more cheaply, but so far no one has offered any evidence to support this.

• Short Winters:

Many of the people I asked also said that since Japanese winters are short, houses are built to be comfortable during the hot, humid summer months, rather than the chilly winter ones. Due to a warm water current flowing past the southwestern side of Japan (the Kuroshio Current in case you’re interested) the southern half of Japan at least does tend to have milder, shorter winters. So, according to my co-workers, small space heaters like the kotatsu are sufficient to last through a few short cold months.

• Water Damage:

One friend’s explanation had to do with the traditional building materials for Japanese homes: wood and paper. Due to the extreme humidity Japan experiences in the summer months, homes were traditionally built of thin materials (i.e. materials that allowed air to flow freely between indoors and out) in order to prevent homes from literally rotting away due to all the extra moisture in the air.

• Enjoyment:

Another Japanese friend couldn’t stop talking about how much she loooves her kotatsu. For her, sitting under a kotatsu and having that one, comfortable warm spot when the rest of the room is freezing is a wonderful feeling, and she’d genuinely miss that if her home had central heating.

• Sense of Community:

The reason given by one obaachan I asked is the one that I think may be at the heart of why the Japanese don’t use central heating. She recalled fond memories from her childhood when her whole family would huddle around a single, small kotatsu to have dinner, watch TV, and eat mikan together. For her, a cold house without insulation wasn’t an inconvenience, but an excuse for her family to spend time together and keep each other warm.

I realize that for some of you these explanations may leave you feeling a little less-than-satisfied. After all, preventing water damage is hardly a major concern for those of us who live in impenetrable cement blocks. Likewise, single JETs may take little comfort from the fact that Japanese families bond over their shared hypothermia.

Keep in mind what I said at the beginning, though. This column is meant to give some insight into how the Japanese view their own way of life, however unusual and foreign we may find it to be. So, when you find yourself grumbling and shivering under 20 layers of clothing and blankets next January, hopefully you’ll remember that the Japanese have their own reasons for making houses the way they do. It won’t keep you warm, but it might help ease the suffering…at least a little bit.

Do you have questions you’d like Courtney to explore in The Japanese Way? Email them to wideislandview (atto) gmail (dotto) com.

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13 thoughts on “The Japanese Way: No insulation, no central heating”

  1. When I was a student we had to make do with no central heating during the winter. Instead we used a localised electric heater to heat one room. It was fun for the short period of time, and it did give us all an excuse to get together (more out of necessity than choice!). However, come the end of the winter, our electricity bill was stupidly expensive, and I can’t help thinking that these devices are far less cost effective than central heating – you can always switch off radiators in rooms that are not in use.

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  2. Much less befuddled, thanks!

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  3. I’ve been living in Japan for more than 20 years, 5 years in an apartment in Osaka-city, the last 15 in a house I bought. In the apartment I used a gas heater to stay warm in the winter and the gas fees weren’t so bad, but now I live in Nara in the country and I use a kerosene heater(the prices rise year by year). The house is small-20 tsubo and is uninsulated but now I’m seriously thinking about adding insulation because more and more during the winter I have been getting sick mostly because of the temperature change going from room to room. My living/dining/kitchen averages about 18°C(with the heater), the genkan/entrance is the same as outdoors -5°(night/early morning) to around 10° during the afternoon. My bedroom hovers around 15° when I use it at night to -5° when I wake up in the morning. The summers are essentially the same-hot outside-hot inside!
    If Japanese houses were made to keep you cool in the summer, and freeze in the winter, what’s the point of buying a house? You might as well be camping outside!

    I have been recently talking with housing reform companies to get an idea how much/which insulation I need and pricing.
    To which they usually reply by saying I need to get my house up to normal standards by adding earthquake prevention and then adding insulation which ranges in price from 5~10 million yen. And no guarantees! Outrageous!!! I’ll look elsewhere….to California where I’ve found a well-known company that will update my house to Japanese earthquake prevention, add insulation as well as energy efficient windows.
    All for less than 4 million. As I keep looking around my future comfort looks much brighter :-)

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  4. Having lived in Japan for 20 years and now back in the land where insulation is key, basically who cares why because I have to say Japan has this all wrong period.

    Especially, in a trad house which I lived in for two years, it was butt-freezing cold in my house until I got the heater up and running and it summer it was stifling hot. Simply put Japanese really don’t know crap about house construction. Insulation even w/o central heating/cooling would do wonders in keeping heat in in winter and cool air in from the aircon in summer.

    Honestly, you can spin it anyway you want but it’s just plain dumb.

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  5. I agree with Johnny 100%. Just because it’s “cultural” doesn’t mean it’s the best way or even acceptable. Life isn’t just about accepting, and this is something that Japan has yet to “culturally” overcome in a lot of ways.

    But improving a certain way of doing things can be hard to overcome in a bureaucratic country like Japan. Houses are expensive in Japan, and sometimes you can only afford to buy an old one. But for the love of god, if your gonna build a new one, then improve upon the standards from 100 years ago…jeeze.

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  6. I’m aware this post is years old, but I wanted to say that it’s a really good point about the kotatsu being a gathering place for the family.

    So many places in Japan get suuuuuper hot during the summer, so I really don’t understand why they still insist on not insulating buildings. It isn’t just about having a short winter. It’s having a short winter, long summer, and very few comfortable weeks in between. In reality, it would be more cost efficient in the long run to insulate buildings. Insulation is cheap, and would save quite a bit of money. We are going to build our house here in a few years, and insulation is definitely something I am not willing to go without. Because of the issues with the populace and nuclear power, currently there’s a lack of power in a lot of places. I can’t help but think, if houses had been properly insulated, if this would be as much of a problem as it actually is… And, I like having central heating, but I think if the house is insulated, there’s no problem with only heating the room you’re using at the time.

    If we combined these two practices, as a world society, we could really start cutting back on wasted energy.

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  7. I was surprised to find our new-old house built in 1979 has insulation- very rare- but only in the walls not the attic- that’s foolish- the attic is the number one place to insulate. It also has newer windows but whoever installed them made the frame to big for the window. These reform companies are crap- most are not bonded or licensed and are just hacks not to mention expensive.

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  8. I also just stumbled upon this old post as I was just sitting in my one room apartment in Kansai thinking to myself “it sure is cold right now…”

    What surprises me is nobody that the OP talked to mentioned earthquakes. I totally thought they would have brought that up as one of the first reasons.

    Other than that, I agree on most of the points in the comments. If the walls are not insulated, then heat can penetrate easily, but so can cold, making the comment by the Japanese colleagues completely false.

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