The nation’s sweltering summers are threatening to become even more oppressive with the chance of power outages because of the Fukushima nuclear crisis and the reactor shutdowns that followed throughout the country.
Now the government is once again considering adopting the Western concept of daylight saving time.
But will setting the clock forward an hour cure the summertime blues? Here are some questions and answers on the issue:
How hot can Tokyo get?
Too hot. Surviving the humid summer can be strenuous even with ample electricity and the air conditioner cranked up full. While Tokyo’s average high in August was 27.7 degrees between 2008 and 2010, just last week areas around Tokyo shot up to the 39-degree range.
According to the Meteorological Agency, temperatures in the capital last year were above 30 degrees for 71 days and over 35 on 13 days, with the humidity sometimes exceeding 80 percent. Both exacted a toll: 4,245 Tokyoites were taken to hospitals last summer for heat exhaustion.
It was the hottest summer on record.
Can Tokyo Electric Power Co. provide enough electricity?
No. Tepco’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant remains crippled and some of its thermal power plants are off line as well because of damage from the March 11 quake and tsunami.
Tepco is expected to generate 53.8 million kw this summer, but demand will probably exceed 60 million kw.
How can daylight saving time help?
Tokyo has approximately 14 1/2 hours of daylight in summer compared with nine hours and 40 minutes in winter. Daylight saving time focuses on making better use of daylight hours to reduce the use of lights at night to save energy.
By setting the clock forward an hour in the summer, people wake up an hour earlier, when the sun is already out. This means electricity use at night should drop, assuming workers go home while it’s still light out.
The Environment Ministry said the power saved as a result of daylight saving time would translate into an annual reduction in carbon dioxide emissions of 1.19 million tons.
Has Japan tried it before?
Yes. During the Allied Occupation, the nation spent four summers between 1948 and 1951 on daylight saving time. After the “Sanmaa-Taimu” (Summer-Time) law took effect in May 1948 it got mixed reviews from the public.
An article published on April 2, 1949, in The Japan Times, then the Nippon Times, was headlined “Summer Time stiffly opposed? — Some Dietmen Move to Have Plan Abandoned; GHQ Favors DST.”
It was summertime, but living wasn’t easy. “Some Japanese are making a lot of fuss opposing the shift to daylight saving time at midnight Saturday although all they have to do is to set the clock one hour ahead when retiring Saturday night and forget about it,” the article said. But opponents claimed the shift would lead to less sleep and overexertion. The law was eventually scrapped.
Other than saving electricity, what other benefits are there?
Based on surveys by the Japan Productivity Center, a nonprofit organization based in Tokyo, the Environment Ministry says an extra hour in the sun after work would lead to more activity and public spending — an economic effect to the tune of ¥880 billion.
The ministry also says longer days and fewer pedestrians at night would lead to about 10,000 fewer traffic accidents per year. Another upside according to the ministry is that there would be fewer cases of purse-snatching and other street crimes because people would be spending longer hours in the sun.
What’s the downside of daylight saving time?
Other than the trouble of having to adjust just about every clock and electronic device at home, those opposed to the idea say the system would do more harm than good.
Critics say setting the clock ahead an hour would do little to curb electricity use in the peak hours of the day — around 2 p.m. to 3 p.m.
Offices would still be manned and air conditioning will be necessary, even if the day is started an hour early.
The 1.19 million ton reduction in carbon dioxide emissions is an overestimation, some say, and even if it held up it would be less than 1 percent of Japan’s annual discharge.
The system could even affect sleep patterns and the biological clocks of many, thus causing health issues, according to the Japan Society of Sleep Research. The group of medical experts and university professors has warned that grogginess, exhaustion and even depression could result from daylight saving time.
The Environment Ministry’s estimates notwithstanding, the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia says on its website that daylight saving time raises the chances of traffic accidents because of sleep deprivation and the increase in motorists and cyclists during the daytime.
“Crash statistics illustrate a higher driving risk the first workday after daylight saving begins,” it says.
“In British Columbia, according to the five-year average (2005-2009), on the Monday following the springtime change, there were 850 crash incidents, compared with 690 the Monday before the time change, which represents a 23 percent increase in crash incidents,” ICBC says on its website.
What other objections are there?
The Japan Public Observatory Society, whose members operate observatories around the country, has been opposed to daylight saving time for years. In 2008 it released a statement arguing that shifting the clocks would distort the correlation between astronomy and time.
The group also pointed out that having sunset occur later would rob children of the opportunity to star-gaze and disrupt summer traditions like the Tanabata festival.
Former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi was against the scheme when in office, saying that those interested in making use of summer-time should do so by simply beginning their days early on their own instead of binding the whole country under a law.
What about other countries?
U.S. states follow daylight saving time, as well as most European countries. Of the 30 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, only Japan, South Korea and Iceland do not follow the practice.
Is the government serious about legislating daylight saving time?
The nuclear crisis and power shortages have put the issue back on the table in a big way, but the government has been studying the scheme for a long time.
Hidetoshi Nakagami, a director at Jukankyo Research Institute Inc. who has served on the Environment Ministry’s panels on the issue, said a nonpartisan group of lawmakers has already outlined a bill.
Talk of submitting it to the Diet was ripe, especially in 1993 under Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa, he said.
Prime Ministers Yasuo Fukuda and Taro Aso also appeared to favor the shift, with Aso noting in 2009 that Japan and South Korea could simultaneously introduce daylight saving time to maximize the effect. But the plan never materialized as both leaders served only short stints, plagued by other, more pressing issues.
“One reason for the delay is that there is no specific ministry that can be in charge of implementing daylight saving time. This makes it necessary for lawmakers to sponsor the bill,” Nakagami explained. This requires a stable government, not the prime ministerial revolving-door of recent years, he added.
Meanwhile, Tanaka also said that it would take about a year to prepare for the change. The earliest possible date for adopting daylight saving time — even if a bill is submitted within the year — is April 2013.
While there are fears the momentum will fade by then, the chances of Tepco being able to provide sufficient electricity by 2013 are still low, pundits say.
The Tokyo Metropolitan Government just launched “summertime” hours. Isn’t that the same thing?
Technically, no. What the metropolitan government began on June 6 is a summertime shift that allows some officials to begin their day an hour early and leave while the sun is still out. The time on their clocks doesn’t change.
Members of the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association also plan to halt factory output on Thursdays and Fridays and work instead on weekends, when electricity demand is low. But some member firms have since qualified their participation.
When companies or governments make unilateral decisions, they can generate other problems as well.
For example, parents who work weekends will need baby sitters because day care facilities on those days are likely to be limited.
Even at the metropolitan government, some clerks would have to stay late even if they began work an hour early because the public may not be operating on the same clock.
Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara is aware of the issue, telling reporters the effort “doesn’t mean much if only the metropolitan government is taking part. Japan as a whole should join the movement.”
Is daylight saving time worth the trouble?
Regardless of the arguments for or against it, Jyukankyo Research Institute’s Nakagami said it would be a good opportunity for many Japanese not only to save electricity but also to reflect on their lives.
The biggest concern among those against daylight saving time is that it would result in an hour of overtime at work.
But Nakagami said the two issues are unrelated. “Summertime and overwork have nothing to do with each other,” he said, touching on the chronic nationwide habit of working overtime. In fact many should take daylight saving time as a chance to “shift their lives” and leave the office on schedule without working off the clock, Nakagami said, repeating a piece of advice that’s been circulating for decades.
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