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 reasearch and eventually won a new image as creators of quality precision and heavy industrial items. 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 microwaves and toaster ovens. This means that the vast majority of items found in Japanese homes are quite different from their Western counterparts.
In order to understand why appliances are different, its helpful to understand Japanese houses. While things have certainly changed, like many aspects of Japan, the uniqueness can be traced back centuries.
Japanese houses are traditionally rather drafty. Long ago fire, floods, earthquakes, and other natural disasters meant houses needed to be cheaply made so they could be replaced easily. High levels of humidity also meant that iron nails were a poor option for building. Many Japanese houses were constructed in a way that enabled them to be completely disassembled, or quickly rebuilt. Instead of nails, interlocking joints (like puzzle pieces) joined various beams together, and roofs were straw that could be easily replaced. What’s more, since it rains so often in Japan, flooding was always an issue, so floors were built raised. This also allowed air to circulate under the floor boards, helping air move.
Japanese houses were built so that whole walls could be removed to catch faint breezes in the summer. This also helped reduce the chance of mold growing in the humid climates. By changing and adjusting sliding doors, the temperature of the house could be easily regulated. Since houses were built cheaply and quickly there was rarely any insulation or double walls, making the houses drafty, even in winter.
Today most houses are made of concrete to protect against earthquakes and worse, but they still have. Since space is limited, many people live in mansions, like apartments in the States. Yet even though building materials have changed, some aspects of Japanese design have remained. There are still raised floors that often have vents outside. Many also have large windows or sliding glass doors where possible that can be opened to catch breezes. This and other aspects of modern Japanese housing, aspects that have their roots in the farming villages of years past, drive the unique aspects of Japan’s consumer society…
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 it says that on the whole, Japan is more worried about efficiency and the cost of waste. That many Japanese are more likely to adapt to the seasons by opening their windows, relying on technology only when temperatures rise beyond livable.
This is the first in a series of posts in which I will explore what Japanese appliances have to offer us about Japan’s culture and history.