Culture in the Things we Buy

Long ago Japan was known in the West as China was known until only a few years ago, as makers of cheap products that would quickly break.  After years of its manufacturing sector suffering under the stereotype, Japanese industries invested in quality control procedures and research that eventually won it the generally positive reputation it has today.  Toyota went from a foreign brand few Americans would buy to the leader in hybrid technology.

This image is still alive today, though the world has and is changing.  Many Americans expect Japanese households to have the same appliances, features, and functions that found in the west.  While its true that there are still equitable levels of technology for the various income levels throughout society, several Japanese customs keep Japanese appliances unique.

So why should you care about what differences in appliances between Japan and the West? The answer is that those differences offer insights into the culture, and might help you understand Japan a little better, especially if you’re going to live there.

What’s the same?

My experience is based on teacher housing which would likely equate to a middle-income family back in the States. So far, the only items I’ve found that are truly similar are toaster ovens.  This means that the vast majority of items found in Japanese homes are quite different from their Western counterparts. So, not much.

Before you look at the things we buy however, be sure to check out the unique aspects of Japanese Houses.

Air Conditioners

One of the biggest differences in appliances, especially for those from warmer climates, is the lack of central air.  In Japan, air conditioners are two separate unites connected by hoses.  Half the setup is a boxy fan that sits outside, and the second half is an internal unit about three feet wide that is placed somewhere near the ceiling of a room inside.  Though they vary in efficiency, they generally do a very good job cooling one standard tatami room, and a very poor job on any further rooms.  For a Japanese apartment, or even house, its common to have only one air cooler to three rooms or so.

Why not cool the entire house?  Power in Japan in expensive.  Since Japan is an island nation with few resources, oil and coal have to be imported.  Nuclear power has long been unpopular and its future is still in doubt after Fukushima.  Even in the southern prefectures, like Okinawa, many people can’t afford to keep even the smaller Japanese units running as much as they would like.  The reasons go deeper though.

Think back to the history of Japanese houses.  They are not sealed the way Western houses are against the elements.  Trying to keep an entire house at a constant temperature would be wasteful, expensive, and highly inefficient.  Central air is just as wasteful in the West of course… though since houses are generally larger, it would likely be more of an initial investment to equip each room with its own cooling unit.

So what does the differences in design say about Japan?  I venture to suggest that on the whole, Japan is more worried about efficiency and the cost of waste and that many Japanese are more likely to adapt to the seasons by opening their windows, relying on technology only when temperatures rise beyond livable.

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