Published: 19.08.11

Necessity is the mother of invention for the citizens of Tokyo

ETH-Zurich student Thomas Geissmann is experiencing first hand how Japan is learning to live with less power after the nuclear disaster in Fukushima and elevating energy conservation to a virtue in the process. And how the radioactive contamination of food concerns the Japanese.

Thomas Geissmann
Monitors at the Shinagawa Station display the capacity utilisation of the power supply system. (photo: Thomas Geissmann / ETH Zurich)
Monitors at the Shinagawa Station display the capacity utilisation of the power supply system. (photo: Thomas Geissmann / ETH Zurich) (large view)

Japan is a high-tech country. The attitude of people towards technology, machines and robots is extremely relaxed: in more simple restaurants, for instance, you don’t order your food from the waiter but a machine. With some coffee machines, the preparation of the coffee is broadcast live on screens via several cameras inside the appliance. And the toilets have so many knobs and levers that it takes a non-japanese greenhorn like me several attempts to find the right button. However, even technology is no match for the forces of nature, as became bitterly apparent to the population of Japan during the recent events in Fukushima-Daiichi: the installation of all the emergency generators in the same place – by the sea about ten metres above the waterline – proved a fatal error when a fourteen-metre high wall of water came in from the sea.

Virtual blackout

In Tokyo, where the earth still quakes from time to time, food with potentially elevated radiation values and the present electricity shortage are the most noticeable consequences of 11 March. Nationwide, about a third of the nominal NSP capacity of around fifty gigawatts is still available – one reason why Tepco can’t just import electricity from other regions of the country. The other reason is that Japan is the only country in the world to have two network standards: fifty and sixty hertz. What was a blessing for the electricity companies and their overpriced monopoly until Fukushima is now taking its toll as Tepco, with its fifty-hertz network, can barely obtain any electricity from the southern sixty-hertz network.

Tepco, which supplies the whole of Tokyo – and thus a third of the population of Japan – with electricity, only has four of its seventeen nuclear power stations in operation. And even though Tepco has got numerous, previously decommissioned fossil-fuel power plants up and running again in record time, Tokyo is now suffering from a partial shortage of electricity; partial because it’s only really a problem during peak times at around two o’clock in the afternoon: a few weeks ago, during the first really hot spell, already ninety-two percent of the upper capacity limit was reached – in other words, the city was teetering on the brink of a blackout. At night, however, there’s plenty of electricity, so Tokyo is far from plunged into darkness: in many places, it’s even more brightly lit than Zurich.

Original electricity-saving ideas

This year, the summer has “kindly” been pretty hot in Tokyo. Temperatures of over thirty degrees Celsius are not uncommon and, what with the high humidity, it feels even hotter. Whereas the air-conditioning units you find in practically every room were powered with the copious amounts of electricity fed into the grid by Tepco in the past, this is no longer possible. In Tokyo, everyone is doing their utmost to save electricity, spawning a wealth of ideas: Tokyo’s central government, which has an economic output that’s about three times as high as Switzerland’s, organised a competition to find a device that cools without consuming electricity, which was actually won by some of my fellow students at the institute. They devised a simple ventilator that is operated by a pedal, like an old sewing machine. They are now using the prize money to organise workshops where children can replicate the ventilator. For practical reasons, however, an electric ventilator, which is considerably more economical than air-conditioning units, was purchased for our lab.

Cool biz without a tie

On the metro, some screens display the current and expected operating rate; others issue brief instructions on how to save electricity along with what to do in the event of an earthquake. After these pointers, produced by major companies, there’s a private advert for the newly developed, energy-saving fridge. Around the bigger stations, fans covered in adverts are handed out to cool people down on the crowded trains. This is often unnecessary, though, since the trains are air-conditioned, mainly to prevent the elderly from falling over in the heat. The few poorly cooled coaches are marked especially.

Apart from a couple of unscrewed light bulbs in the lab, large, unlit adverts, and signs asking you not to use the lift for the first three floors and only cool the rooms to twenty-eight degrees Celsius, the electricity shortage in Tokyo isn’t all that noticeable. As for the twenty-eight-degree interiors, you could say that “cool biz” is the order of the day in Tokyo this summer: for once, business people are allowed to ditch their ties and jackets.

An almost normal life

So my life in Tokyo hasn’t really been affected all that much by the electricity shortage at peak times; I’m experiencing the unrivalled service when shopping (in every shop, without exception), the extraordinary politeness of the people, their thoughtfulness and the incredible choice of restaurants in the same way I probably would have before 11 March. The famously low crime rate is also obvious every single day: for instance, you see women save their seats in busy places with their bulging handbags to go and get a coffee, even if they’re on their own; and at the university, many bikes are left unlocked. And the window locks, even on the ground floor, are often so basic (not to mention bad) that it would be taken as an invitation for thieves back in Switzerland.

The vast number of drinks machines, which (typically Japanese) often feel most at home in groups, can function as local fluid dispensers during disasters. That’s why there’s a button on the machines that can be activated in the event of a catastrophe, which Tokyo has been expecting for quite some time in the form of a major earthquake. The drinks would then tumble out of the machines for free. Just imagine a feature like this in Zurich; the vending machine operators would go out of business in the space of a few weeks. At the moment, however, the machines are more renowned for the enormous amount of electricity they consume as they often stand in the blazing sun – sometimes five or more in a row so everyone can refresh themselves with a cold drink or treat themselves to a meal that’s been cooled to twenty-four degrees Celsius, then heated automatically in the microwave.

Adapting eating habits – or not

While the ambient radiation levels in Tokyo are quite safe, its citizens are now experiencing – like Europe after Chernobyl – possible radioactive contamination through certain foods. The topic is not just a major worry for the gaijin (foreigners) who have stayed behind but also the Japanese, even if few people like to talk about it.

It’s up to each individual to decide for themselves how they want to deal with it and adapt their eating habits. Some are careful about what they buy and what they order in a restaurant; others are hardly holding back at all in this respect and trust the checks of the government, which is trying to conduct food tests as comprehensively as possible. Spinach and beef have been withdrawn from circulation in some regions, for example. Personally, I’m trying to avoid vegetables from Northern Japan and the Tokyo area. The place of origin is declared for all vegetables and most other foods in the supermarkets. Moreover, Japan imports the majority of its food. So everyone is free to choose what they want to eat.

About the author

Thomas Geissmann studied at the Department of Management, Technology and Economics (D-MTEC). He is currently doing a semester abroad at the Tokyo Institute of Technology and an internship at ABB K.K. (Japan) in the smart grid sector. He received a Kikin Scholarship from Tokyo Tech and a travel grant from ETH Zurich.

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