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Soaring temperatures force Japan to confront entrenched ideas on handling the heat

by Patrick ST. Michel

Contributing Writer

A  heat wave has gripped Japan over the past week or so, peaking with the highest temperature ever recorded in the country on Monday.

According to government data, the heat wave has killed at least 77 people and sent more than 30,000 to hospitals in the two-week period through July 22. It’s been an unusually scorching summer so far — and experts argue that it’s probably the “new normal.”

Whether it’s because they can picture the catastrophes that global warming could cause or just because they are sweltering, Japanese online users have commented on the current situation from angles that go way beyond the standard “Atsui desu ne” (“It’s hot, isn’t it”). Most noticeably, the current high temperatures have prompted netizens to challenge long-standing ideas about how to handle the heat.

The most important matter on the mind of those online? Air conditioners. Specifically, using them despite the longstanding idea held by many older people that, since they didn’t have to use them in the past, they don’t need to use them now. Many griped about hearing this rationale, while others recounted visits to hospitals only a decade ago only to find minimal air conditioning in place. Comedian Kazuya Kojima tweeted how he rushed out to buy his parents an air conditioner after finding out they didn’t own one … even if they got into an argument about it afterward, as they were worried about their monthly electricity bill. Some tried to explain that many buildings didn’t use air conditioning owing to existing regulations. This did not go down well.

Arguing with older people about using air conditioners has become something akin to the American online tradition of dreading Thanksgiving dinner with your conservative uncle (to the point where there are now articles offering advice on various arguments you can throw at them).

Some netizens stated that places such as gymnasiums needed air conditioners, while others reminded us that the world didn’t have ambulances or pension programs back in the day either. Others shared a very valid concern: that grandparents raised in such a way might not even realize that leaving a child in a car could be disastrous.

Hot stuff: A display shows the temperature in Kumagaya, Saitama Prefecture, reaching 41.1 degrees Celsius — the highest-ever logged in Japan — on Monday.
Hot stuff: A display shows the temperature in Kumagaya, Saitama Prefecture, reaching 41.1 degrees Celsius — the highest-ever logged in Japan — on Monday. | KYODO

Concern about children became central to this online debate, as the bulk of discussion centered on schools not using air conditioners. Users shared quotes from experts arguing that it wasn’t a financial matter but rather an institutional problem stemming from schools wanting students to persevere through inconvenience, prompting further discussion. Self-described high school staff member @TNTO8698 recounted a time when the school invited the PTA to a classroom lacking an air conditioner, and the heat within promptly resulted in a “defeat” of the old guard.

Hard data proved most effective. Twitter user @hirokilexis shared Tokyo temperature information from July and August 1976 — with the numbers being way more tolerable than 2018. Charts popped up a lot on social media, and the dominant mood from the pro-air-conditioner side was realism: This is the future, and it is vital to adapt to these environmental changes.

These changing times also inspired some surprising progressive viewpoints. “Higasa danshi” (“parasol boys”) is an unlikely trend that’s emerged this summer, with things really taking off as temperatures soared. J-cast reports that the term started popping up on social media sites in late June, with young men deciding it was so hot they would buy a parasol. It’s an item typically associated with women, but it’s so hot that men threw goofy shame aside in favor of avoiding heatstroke. And dudes embraced it, showing off umbrellas both regular and creative, with sites such as Huffington Post Japan even trying it out.

Plenty of talk about the far-off future came up, but one event that’s a bit closer also became central to online heat discussions over the past two weeks. The 2020 Olympics are set to happen around this time, and that is raising concern. Not helping matters was a Nikkan Sports interview with Tokyo Olympic Organizing Committee President Yoshiro Mori, who said the heat might be key to a successful games. Netizens thought he was offbase to say the least. Adding fuel to the fire was a 2015 Yomiuri Shimbun article about “heat measures” for the Olympics. Suggestions include uchimizu (sprinkling water on the ground) and wearing yukata (summer kimono). The article — and the ideas presented within it — got dunked on.

Uniting all these trends, however, is an acceptance that the old ways of beating the heat aren’t going to be sufficient moving forward, and that Japan needs to drop old-fashioned approaches to roasting temperatures as the mercury continues to rise. It might just be better to turn on the air conditioner and deal with the bill when the time comes.