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Next month, 10 years will have passed since the meltdown of three Fukushima nuclear reactors. Since that time, Japan has relied mainly on its aging thermal generators for its power needs, with solar power and other forms of renewable energy only supplying a small fraction of demand.

Peak power demand typically occurs during the summer months, when air conditioners are cranked up to maximum settings. One thing no one has counted on, however, is high demand during winter. The winter of 2020-21 has been an unusually cold one, with temperatures around the country plunging to levels seen perhaps only once in a decade, and this has sent chills down the spines of utility firms.

According to online news service Gendai Business (Jan. 22), between 4 p.m. and 5 p.m. on Dec. 14, power demand in Tokyo reached 95% of total capacity — a level seldom reached even in summer. The same day in Kansai, between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m., demand soared to 98%. Data from the Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan shows that in all nine regions of Japan, demand that day for electricity reached or exceeded 95% of capacity.

Needless to say, if a polar vortex similar to those that have struck the Asian or North American continents were to descend on Japan, power demand would surge to unprecedented levels.

Infrastructural bottlenecks pose another problem. At certain times, the waters around ports on the Sea of Japan have been so rough, ships transporting liquified natural gas — which accounts for 40% of the fuel used by thermal reactors — were not able to dock safely in port.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga pledged to make the country carbon neutral in a policy statement last year, phasing out carbon emissions completely by 2050. How the government intends to achieve this begs the question of where electric power will come from.

Following the Fukushima disaster, Japan imposed the world’s strictest safety controls on its nuclear generators. While 16 plants have met the safety criteria, so far only a fraction of them have resumed operation.Clearly Japan, a country lacking both military power and natural resources, cannot suffer the loss of economic power without major consequences. The bitter lessons of the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11, the article concludes, calls for Japan to radically change its ways of thinking.

Hotel woes

Anticipating high demand for hotel rooms during the 2020 Olympics, the past half decade has seen a boom in construction of new accommodation. And even with foreign tourism virtually halted in its tracks due to the coronavirus pandemic, the building of new hotels continues.

An older establishment, the venerable Hotel Grand Palace in Iidabashi, which opened in 1972, appears to be one of the most notable casualties of the travel slump.

Among the Grand Palace’s claims to fame, or undeserved infamy, was the abduction from its premises of South Korean dissident politician Kim Dae-jung by a team of operatives from the Korean CIA in August 1973. Between 1976 and 1988, the hotel was also the site of the annual new player draft conference held by Japanese professional baseball.

As reported in Friday (Feb. 12), since the end of last year the front desk at the 24-floor, 458-room hotel has been discreetly notifying customers in writing that it will halt operations from July 1.

Revenue during 2020 is believed to have dropped by 70% from the previous year. Friday’s reporter visited the hotel on a weekday night in January and found the lobby and coffee shop deserted.

Yuji Tsutsumi, chairman of the Yokohama Grand Intercontinental Hotel, told Friday that even if the pandemic is brought under control, the use of hotels as venues for corporate entertainment and parties is likely to keep declining.

“Because of the coronavirus the hotel industry will need to modify its ways of doing business,” Tsutsumi says. “Unless they can respond to the changed environment, they won’t survive. We’re at the point where we either sink or swim.”

ATM shopping

As banks successively phase out their ATM cash dispensers, the adage about how nature abhors a vacuum is being verified by new enterprises.

Nikkan Gendai (Jan. 28) visited one such business, located on the 1.3-km-long Togoshi Ginza shopping street in Tokyo’s Shinagawa Ward. Called “Tommy’s Pudding Workshop,” the tiny 33-square-meter shop offers six flavors of pudding and two varieties of soft serve cones from what was formerly an ATM station of the MUFG Bank.

“On a good day we sell 140 glass jars of pudding,” says Yoshinori Tomizawa, the store manager. “We’re searching for other ATM locations so we can expand into a chain.”

The number of bank ATMs in operation in Japan last year totaled 57,056, a decline of 2,820 units from 2019.

Kazumi Nagai, an analyst at Toray Corporate Business Research Inc., pointed out that from two years ago two major banks, MUFG and Mitsui Sumitomo, started a cooperative agreement, allowing customers free access to the other’s ATMs. With the increase in smartphone use and net banking, cashless transactions have been progressing and more banks have been phasing out ATMs as a cost-cutting measure. Many of these ATM stations are located near rail stations or on streets with high pedestrian traffic, making them eminently suitable for retail businesses.

Close to Azamino Station on the Tokyu Den-en-toshi Line, measuring only 10 square meters, a tiny shop named Takasho that opened last October is selling yudane shokupan (water roux bread), a moist, fluffy variety baked at a low temperature. Only one customer at a time can enter, but it’s common to see people lined up outside.

In a period of low economic growth, it seems that the small spaces formerly occupied by ATMs are exceptionally well-suited to high-efficiency, low-cost businesses.

Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues being discussed by domestic media organizations.

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