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The hot, sticky summer of our discontent

by Geoff Botting

Last summer went on record as Japan’s hottest ever, as the daytime mercury seemed stubbornly stuck in the 33 to 36 degrees Celsius range while at nighttime it usually refused to budge to below the 25 C mark.

Now we have summer 2011 to look forward to. The temperatures will probably not be as extreme, but even so for residents of Kanto and other areas affected by the March 11 disaster, it could well go down as the most brutally uncomfortable summer on record.

The reason, obviously, is the continuing cutbacks on the use of electricity, the energy source that powers our air conditioners and refrigerators. But that’s not all. As any Tokyo resident will tell you, the depleted power supply has led to the idling of other public conveniences, such as escalators and elevators.

Just think about it: trudging up long flights of stairs at train stations is already a sweaty ordeal at current springtime temperatures. But what will it be like when the mercury rockets beyond 30 degrees and Japan’s notorious humidity blankets the country?

The widespread worry is rooted in the fact that electricity demand rises in tandem with the temperature. Nevertheless, the government is asking the nation to cut its power usage by 15 percent this summer from the peak usage periods last year.

With all that in mind, a big question on people’s minds is — how hot will this summer be?

The Meteorological Agency gives a somewhat ambiguous prediction. “It won’t be on the scale of the extreme heat of last year, and it could be quite hot, more than in an average year,” the agency tells Sankei Shimbun (May 11).

Shuhei Maeda, an official from the Meteorological Agency, at least throws out some rough numbers when he speaks with Web-based news service R25 (May 19). “The chance of the temperatures rising higher than average in the Kanto Koshin region is 50 percent,” says Maeda, who also cites a 20-percent chance of a cooler summer and 30 percent of an average one.

The public seems to be taking a rather pragmatic view of the situation, judging by a joint public-opinion poll by Toyko-based Research and Development Inc. and Cross Marketing Inc. The survey was aimed at determining what things people think should to be subject to setsuden (electricity conservation).

Perhaps not surprisingly, three-quarters of the roughly 3,000 respondents living in the Tokyo metropolitan region who were polled agreed that pachinko parlors and game centers should cut their electricity use. Next on the list were neon signboards

As for train-station escalators, 28 percent said it would be OK to suspend their operation for the sake of dealing with the energy crisis. Slightly fewer, 24 percent, felt otherwise.

But utmost on people’s minds were the regional train services, which tend to be crowded even in normal times. Thirty-eight percent — no doubt dreading a scenario of jam-packed commutes — believe that trains and subways should not be subject to any reduction of services.

Japan’s media, meanwhile, have been contemplating the business implications of an unprecedentedly uncomfortable summer. The usual predictions, including a rise in beer sales, hand fans, and so on, are put forward. Also featured, however, are a plethora of novel products designed to be worn, held, or strapped on to our bodies to keep us cool.

One such contraption is the “Ice Ruck,” from Fukuoka-based M-Craft Co. and featured by Flash magazine (June 7). As its name might suggest, this resembles a small, thin backpack. The user freezes a coolant gel, sticks it inside the pack’s sleeve, and then enjoys several hours of having cool air — rather than sticky sweat — running down his or her back.

Weekly Playboy (May 18), catering to a younger and possibly less affluent crowd, offers up a range of cheap and easy tips to of dealing with power restrictions. In an article titled “Survival Lifestyle Techniques, it explains half a dozen innovations to reduce your electricity addiction.

For instance, if the lights go out, you can quickly build a lantern — made from an empty drink can, a bit of tissue, foil and using cooking oil for fuel.

At the office, several large corporations have announced “summertime,” going to work and leaving for home an hour or more early. Private- and public-sector workplaces have moved forward the timing of their “cool biz” dress codes, which involve the ditching of jackets and ties at the workplace.

Nikkan Gendai (May 14) notes that the latter trend is already having an effect. Young female office workers, the tabloid can’t help but notice, are wearing skimpier and skimpier clothing, including low-cleavage blouses and tank tops.

It calls the trend “frightening.” Why? Because of its effect on men — many may not be able to control their urges while in public.

Still, of all the inconveniences that may lay in store this summer, that worry seems like a small one indeed.