Japan Seeks Alternative Ways to Keep Cool

With threats of electricity shortages on the horizon, Tokyo residents are bracing for the summer heat with products that span the high-tech, the low-tech and the no-tech.

Power strip
Paul Eekhoff | Photographer's Choice | Getty Images
Power strip

A possible dearth of the power-hungry air-conditioning that makes life tolerable during the hottest months has sent consumers to search for alternative ways to stay cool. DIY, stick-on double glazing is so popular it has already sold out on the local Amazon website.

Producers of self-cooling shirts featuring battery-operated fans are reportedly struggling to keep up with demand. Consumers looking for a more circumspect way to avoid getting hot above the collar are being offered the Magicool neck scarf, which relies on the evaporation of water from a polymer agent.

But many Japanese are reaching for old-fashioned ways to temper the heat, with sales of electric fans soaring 460 per cent in the first 28 days of April compared with the same period last year, according to Yamada Denki, a retailer.

The sales bonanza is the latest consumption aftershock caused by the earthquake and tsunami on March 11. By knocking out the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant and other power stations, the disaster left Tokyo Electric Power with less than 35 million kWh of generating capacity – far below the 55 million kWh peak demand predicted for summer.

In response, the government has brought forward its annual Cool Biz campaign, which encourages people to shed their jackets and ties so office thermostats can be nudged upwards.

While officials consider compulsory curbs on peak-time power use, companies and individuals are already acting to switch off non-essential equipment and lights.

Among the victims are cutting-edge drink vending machines introduced last year. After using cameras and face recognition software to judge a potential customer’s gender and age, the machine recommends a beverage on a large touch-sensitive screen.

A spokesman for the arm of the JR East railway company that introduced the “next generation” machines said that they generate five times the sales of standard models, but all 46 in the Tokyo area have been turned off.

Still, Tepco has been restoring capacity faster than expected and government officials are increasingly hopeful it will be able to meet peak demand.

But such hopes could be dashed by higher temperatures than predicted or by technical problems.

The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry is still keen to demonstrate self restraint. It has cut its peak electricity demand by 38 per cent by switching off lights and lifts and turning down air-conditioning, said Tatsuya Terazawa, a senior official.