After a sultry summer, Japan’s students and teachers have returned to school, but some will suffer during September’s remaining hot days more than others. Government data shows air conditioning is becoming standard in most Japanese public schools, but a handful of cities and prefectures are resisting the trend for questionable reasons.
Every three years the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) conducts a survey into the number of school classrooms with air conditioners. MEXT released results from its most recent survey on June 9.
The 2017 survey shows that 41.7 percent of all public elementary and junior high schoolrooms now have air conditioning, a 12 percent rise from three years ago. This figure includes classrooms as well as computer and science labs and other rooms for special purposes. Look only at regular classrooms and the percentage rises to 49.6 percent. This year 17 prefectures had over 50 percent of classrooms air-conditioned, compared to only six prefectures in 2014. Older students receive even more help coping with the heat: 74.1 percent of public high school classrooms have air conditioners.
When MEXT began collecting data in 1998, just 3.7 percent of regular classrooms had air conditioning. In 2010, the year the Japanese government began offering subsidies to cover one-third of the installation costs, only 16 percent had it.
Not all kids are cooled equally
MEXT’s data also shows air conditioning access isn’t equal across Japan. Unsurprisingly, Japan’s cooler northern prefectures haven’t been rushing to install AC units. In Hokkaido only 60 out of 18,034 elementary and junior high classrooms have air conditioning.
But the data also shows children in certain prefectures study in sweltering sweat-boxes while those in neighboring prefectures learn in the luxury of cool classrooms. However, it isn’t simply a matter of well-off cities paying for air conditioning that have-not villages can’t afford. The Tokyo metro area does have the highest installation rate in elementary and junior high classrooms at 99.9 percent, but the prefecture with the second highest rate is Shikoku’s Kagawa Prefecture at 97.7 percent, with Fukui coming in third with 86.5 percent.
Kyushu provides a good example of prefectures with differing priorities. Fukuoka Prefecture has 65.5 percent of its classrooms air-conditioned while in Nagasaki Prefecture the figure is only 8.6 percent. Four other Kyushu prefectures have installation rates under 40 percent.
Some prefectures are attempting to close the gap with their neighbors. For example, while only 26 percent of Okayama Prefecture’s classrooms have air conditioning, it’s an improvement from 2014’s figure of 10.8 percent. Aichi Prefecture showed similar gains, increasing the number of air-conditioned regular classrooms from 12.9 percent in 2014 to 35.7 percent this year.
Pouring cold water on the idea
Other prefectures and cities show less desire to close the cooler gap. In 2017, Ehime Prefecture had only 5.9 percent of elementary and junior high school classrooms air-conditioned, up only slightly from the 4.6 percent rate reported in 2014. Nara Prefecture only increased from 6.1 to 7.4 percent in three years.
A blog post calling for the installation of AC units written by Nara Prefectural Assembly member Misato Ioku of the Democratic Party explains their absence. Ioku writes that assembly members oppose the idea for two reasons. Some say they don’t want to spend money before every school has received updated earthquake resistance renovations. Others argue that because Japan has four beautiful seasons and Japanese have a heart that can endure, installing air conditioning would have an adverse effect on student development.
Children sensitive to the whims of the weather in Nara Prefecture will have to wait and choose their high school wisely. Just over half of public high schools in Nara do have air conditioning — paid for by the schools’ parent-teacher associations.
In the city of Chiba, one of the few Kanto cities without air-conditioned classrooms, municipal assembly members have rejected calls for their installation. In 2014, Yohei Kabasawa of the Japanese Communist Party tweeted that during Chiba Municipal Assembly discussions, a Liberal Democratic Party member opposed air conditioning in schools saying: “Installing air conditioning can make people ill. It’s also necessary to have a strong spirit.” Mayor Toshihito Kumagai, who runs as an independent, argued the city needed to pay for quake reinforcement in schools and therefore couldn’t afford the expense.
During Chiba’s 2017 mayoral election campaign, Takashi Ono, the JCP candidate, made installing air conditioning in schools a main plank in his campaign platform. He lost the election.
In Tokorozawa, Saitama Prefecture, the noise from Iruma Air Base makes opening classroom windows in some schools nearly impossible. But in 2012, newly elected Mayor Masato Fujimoto canceled existing plans to install air conditioning, arguing students had to live in harmony with nature following the Great East Japan Earthquake.
In 2015, parents forced a nonbinding referendum on the issue and 65 percent of residents who voted supported installing air-conditioning in city schools. Fujimoto compromised by agreeing to install air-conditioning in one junior high school located 2 kilometers from the air base.
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