Sunday 11 February 2018

Keeping Warm in Winter: Musical Kerosene Trucks and Tragic Conflagrations

Most of the snow from the record snowfall in Tokyo has now gone, though other parts of the country are still struggling. Prefectures along the Sea of Japan have experienced very heavy snow, resulting in ten deaths and many more injuries since February 4th; 1500 cars were stranded in Fukui, some 200 miles west of Tokyo, while the village of Okura in Yamagata had an unbelievable 4.36 meters of snow. But even without snow, temperatures in Tokyo have been freezing, regularly dropping below zero, resulting in electricity demand pushing capacity to the limit. This is a little surprising given that one of the main sources of heat in winter for many Japanese - particularly less well-off Japanese living in houses rather than apartments - is kerosene (paraffin) known as tōyu(灯油).

Kerosene Truck: Note the kanji ki (危) meaning danger
Walking around the neighbourhood in winter one will typically see red plastic jerry cans placed in front of the gate or door (pictured). These are known as pori-tanku (ポリタンク) or tōyu-kan (灯油缶)in Japanese. These cans are waiting for the kerosene truck to come around, and the driver will stop and fill the tank and then ring the bell for payment. A standard 18 litre can costs ¥1,580 (£10/$14) where I live and the capacity of a regular kerosene fan heater is 5 litres. Given that one heater is typically able to heat a 15mᒾ or 10 (畳) tatami-mat room - yes, Japanese rooms are measured in terms of the number of tatami mats - this proves to be very economical. The trucks incidentally play a catchy little tune to alert people to their presence. The one in the video below is playing the rather melancholy "Tsuki no Sabaku" (月の砂漠) - "Moon Desert"? - but this varies by neighbourhood and region: the video here shows a truck in Kawasaki playing "Bonfire" (焚火), which, given the discussion below, is perhaps not the best choice.

I remember being taken aback when I first arrived in chilly Yamagata to find that my source of heating in technologically advanced Japan would be kerosene. One problem is the smell - kerosene releases dangerous fumes so the instructions on the side of my heater told me to open the window every hour or so to let the fumes out! This meant that leaving the heater on all night was a definite no-no (at least if I wanted to wake up alive). A second problem is that kerosene is obviously highly flammable and transferring the fuel from the jerry can to the smaller tank (there is a pump for this - see picture) is asking for trouble, especially in a Japanese style wooden house with tatami straw mat flooring. Indeed, every winter there are horror stories of houses burning down; just last week, 11 people were killed in a fire at a low-rent residence for the elderly in Hokkaido. Of the four things Japanese are said to be most fearful of - earthquakes, lightning, fire, and fathers (地震・雷・火事・親父) - in a rapidly ageing society in which dementia is a growing problem, fire could be said to be the most fearsome of all.