Monday 12 August 2019

Keeping Cool in the Punishing Japanese Summer: Traditional and Modern Methods

July may have been the hottest month on record globally, but here in Japan while July was cool August is shaping up to be the hottest on record. It's been day after day of punishing 35℃+ days - with "feels like" heat index readings in the mid-forties - and sleepless 25℃+ nights. People have been really struggling: the Mainichi reported that at least 162 have died from heatstroke so far this summer with over 18,000 sent to hospital in just one week last week. One of the deaths included a worker at a Tokyo Olympic construction site heightening concerns for the athletes next year. Measures such as starting the marathon at 6:00am will not help a great deal when temperatures are already pushing 30℃ in Tokyo at that time.
One consequence of the heatwave has been a drop in productivity - the lateness of this latest blog post is proof of that! Indeed, research shows that heat does make people less productive. Despite the widespread use of air conditioners in Japan, controlling the temperature in the office doesn't actually help people get to work - and in the big cities at least, commuting means walking to and from the station and standing on a jam-packed commuter train. The Tokyo Metropolitan government did start  a campaign last year (2018) to push companies to offer more flexible working hours and also to encourage workers to take earlier trains to avoid over-crowding. The campaign is called Jisa-Biz (時差ビズ  written as 時差Biz) with jisa meaning time-difference (jisa-boke means "jet-lag" for example) and bizu just short for business.

The forerunner of the Jisa-Biz campaign was the Cool-Biz campaign which the Ministry of the Environment initiated in 2005. The idea was to reduce electricity usage by keeping air-conditioners at 28℃; to make this practical companies were encouraged to let employees wear cooler clothes to work, including short-sleeved Hawaiian and Okinawan (Kariyushi) shirts. The campaign transformed into the "Super Cool-Biz" campaign and became a regular feature on the calendar from May to October following the eletricity shortages caused by the triple disaster of 2011. Outside the office, some of the coolest clothing (in both senses of the word) are the traditional summer kimono - yukata - usually made of cotton and worn with sandals. These go perfectly with a hand-dyed tenugui (手ぬぐい) hand-towel made of traditional Japanese fabric that is thin but which absorbs large amounts of water and dries quickly. Larger and longer than handkerchiefs, some Japanese tie them around their neck or head to absorb sweat or even use them to wrap cold plastic bottles.

Keeping cool does not stop at clothes. There are a huge variety of ryōmi (涼味) "cool taste" snacks and drinks to ward off the heat - the picture shows jellies and salt and mineral sweets - not to mention the summer staples of water melon and kakigōri shaved ice. There are also fans of every size and shape: as well as the traditional non-bending uchiwa (pictured) and folding sensu/ōgi fans with summer motifs (like goldfish and dragonflies), there are hand-held electric fans, fans you wear around your neck, and even fans embedded in hats and jackets. Not to mention a "cooling" (rei-kyaku) vest!

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A final and rather unique Japanese custom to keep cool is known as uchimizu (打ち水)which involves throwing water onto hot pavements and roads to cool down the surrounding air. This custom, which is promoted as "wisdom from the Edo era," is traditionally carried out using a wooden ladle known as a hishaku (柄杓) and pail (teoke =手桶), though these days a hose pipe is probably more common (the bucket and ladle set is also used when visiting a grave). The traditional custom is backed up by scientific fact: as the water evaporates (jōhatsu=蒸発) it (temporarily) cools the surrounding air by 1.5℃ according to research by the Ministry of the Environment. Under the slogan Uchimizu Biyori ("Perfect Weather for Uchimizu"), the Tokyo Metropolitan Government holds a number of events during the summer months to promote this traditional custom, including one last Saturday in Odaiba (some pictures here). Whether you have the stamina to venture out to attend such an event is a different matter; personally, apart from dog-walking, I'm staying indoors as much as possible!