Jul 17, 2018
Behavior during Japan’s summer season curtain raiser, the Ocean Day weekend, presents the observer with something of a conundrum about the Japanese lifestyle highlighting as it does the propensity for locals to live according to the season -- in this case summer and summer alone as the time to hit the beach -- but conversely, again and exclusively in the case of summer and the accompanying notorious summer heat, that they emphatically aren’t living according to the dictates of this particular season.
So it is then that with all the predictability of a minor RTA clogging up the nation’s highways on a holiday weekend, many people across Japan spent their Ocean Day weekend in hospital wards receiving treatment for heat-related illness -- over 2,000 people were taken to hospitals on the Monday alone. And the summer in Japan is still in its infancy.
While it’s hard to put into words for the benefit of those who’ve yet to experience the kind of heat that Japan’s summer delivers there can be little complaint from those likely to be affected that they didn’t know it was coming. You can set your watch by the seasons in Japan, and warnings of the summer heat and how to deal with it have been well documented by now -- the season provides plenty of fodder for news headlines to shout about record temperatures and casualties.
And yet summer in Japan continues to be a desperate slog for many, and for a few (but still far too many) a deadly one at that. In fact, perhaps the most effective way of putting Japan’s summer experience into words is to say that where in many other nations the prospect of summer is a happy one, for many people in Japan, it’s one filled with dread.
It’s a productive time of year for some in Japan though, the sense of dread lending itself as another marketing strategy for the commercial sector alongside traditional, happy-summer-vibes imagery. The advertising ether is given over to equal parts “instabae” worthy ice creams and wipes and sprays offering bursts of cold so strong that, in a cruel twist of irony, they appear to burn.
In fact one can’t really complain that Japan hasn’t tried to come up with myriad of ways for the consumer to throw money at their heat related woes -- from said wipes and sprays and the highest grade aircon tech to the brute desperation of turning to booze to make the heat appear to have disappeared, in some quarters summer is a time to “make hay while the sun shines” so to speak.
Outside of the commercial sector Japan has tried, and continues to try, social initiatives to get us through the summer. Perhaps the most famous is “Cool Biz,” an initiative launched under the Koizumi administration in 2005 which encourages workers to assume more liberal forms of business attire conducive to the season. Cool Biz became “Super Cool Biz” following the shutdown of many of Japan’s nuclear power plants in the wake of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami.
More recently, in 2015 Prime Minister Shinzo Abe introduced a campaign that would see public servants at central government ministries shift working days forward by an hour or two over July and August.
“We will promote a national campaign to transform the summer lifestyle,” Abe told his cabinet ahead of the campaign’s launch.
What the PM was talking about in this case though was an attempt to take advantage of the longer summer days -- effectively meaning the same amount of time spent at work but with time made available to spend with friends and family, after work. Essentially then, a campaign encouraging greater productivity during the summer.
Again, it’s a problem putting summer in Japan into words, but anyone who’s experienced the summer heat over here will surely sympathise with words to the effect that during this season, in the minds of most, greater productivity plays second fiddle to a brute getting-through-it, and in extreme cases, survival. Not to mention the likelihood that if you ask the Japanese worker to come in earlier they’ll just carry on working through to their regular clocking-off time anyway, thus extending the hours of work.
Oddly enough, Abe was right on the “transform the summer lifestyle” point at the same time as he emphatically missed the point. As does the nation as a whole, with its innovative heat-busting tech and its “top 10 ways to beat summer heat” lists all of which, it seems to this expat, suffer from a gaping ellipsis.
Japan could well do with a transformation of its summer lifestyle to make things more comfortable, and that is to do just that, put comfort, nay health, ahead of productivity and economy, and assume a pace of life that is more in keeping with the heat. To put this in as clear words as possible -- to slow down.
Of course, it’s easy to misinterpret initiatives like Cool Biz and earlier working hours as attempts towards putting comfort ahead of productivity but really what they lean towards is the latter in order to compensate for, all be them noble, efforts to reduce energy consumption, carbon footprints and corporate spending.
In the same way, one could make the case that all the cooling wet wipes, sprays, and breathable undies are designed to keep folks comfortable, yes, but so that they feel just about comfortable enough to peel themselves out of bed and make the slog to work.
Rather than supplements to a collective slowing down and prioritising of quality-of-life, Japan’s summer-beating efforts might appear more like little white lies aimed at bolstering some plucky Dunkirk spirit in the face of brutal heat. And if you’re sceptical about that, consider for a moment that even the cows over here are getting kitted out with cooling shirt-like devices in order that they hold up their end of the productivity balance. Perhaps the cows love them, but one can be fairly sure that such sentiment wasn’t intentional.
Of course, the place of work may well be the most comfortable place to be during the summer. Even with Cool Biz limiting aircon settings to 28 degrees celsius, it’s still aircon comfort of a kind and on the company’s coffers to boot.
Interestingly, on the “28 degrees” point, a 2008 article from Yale University’s YaleGlobal Online references Kozo Hirata, a physiology professor at Kobe Women's University, who says about the interaction between clothing and the human skin that “82 degrees (fahrenheit - around 28 degrees celsius) can be comfortable only if you're thin, naked and stay still.”
It’s a quote that could spark a chuckle had the summer not sapped us of the energy to so. But while many Japanese people tend towards the slender, being naked and staying still are unlikely to find their way onto any lifestyle transformation manifest.
How about slowing down a bit? Would a reduction of tasks, the odd early finish, and a few “work from home days” to avoid the draining commute be too much to ask?
Oddly, maybe such demands are not too much to ask of an employer, but are they too much to ask of a devoted worker? As the necessity of attempts to get Japan’s workforce to take its holidays perhaps shows, this is a nation of workers that appears to be reluctant to be seen taking the more comfortable path.
You can bet your summer electricity bill that even if employers tried to implement “slow down during summer” policies there would still be those workers taking it upon themselves to at least put on a show of going the extra yard. And it only takes a few for just about everyone else to follow suit. Guilt and a sense of the collective among the Japanese are felt as heavily as the summer heat.
Perhaps then it’s not just the PM who has missed the point about summer lifestyle change. It’s this expat too, although for different reasons, the latter having fallen guilty of that classic reactive expat twitch of trying to will their own values onto a home-away-from-home nation when they believe something to be right but no one’s listening.
Well, right or wrong about a slower summer pace, it’s emphatically true that I’ve been unable to assimilate to Japan’s summer heat and its summer lifestyle, both mentally and physically.
I don’t think I ever will, and I still think we could all do with slowing down a bit rather than seeking quick-fix, temporary summer solace from the nation’s retailers.
Do you think Japan needs a summer lifestyle transformation? Let us know in the comments.
Shirt-like device allows dairy cows to stay cool in summer heat - Kyodo News, June 2017
Japan Sweats It Out as It Wages War on Air Conditioning - YaleGlobal Online, Sept. 2007
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