Thursday, May 25, 2006

The Green Island

Dustin made a comment on the Akihabara post about how much energy Japan must waste running some of their gigantic signs during the day and I figured now is as good a time as any to talk about how the Japanese deal with the environment and their resources. I am not going to go into a ton of detail but this should give you a pretty good picture of how that stuff works around here.

Since the beginning of time, the Japanese have kind of gotten the shaft when it comes to the abundance of natural resources on and around Japan. Basically, there aren't any. Japan has trees, but not many that could produce good building material but aside from that, not much else by way of resources are to be found on the islands that make Japan. For this reason, Japan has had to learn how to make as much as they can with the little they get. Pretty much all resources that Japan uses come from other countries. Oil from the Middle East(though there may be some new progress in this area I will talk about later), wood from China (I will talk about this too), most of its produce and livestock for food come from Europe or the United States, etc. The ironic part about all of this is that people think Japan and they think cars, robots, computers, and the like. In order for Japan to produce all of that stuff, almost all of the ore and minerals have to come from other countries. Without trade from other countries, the Japan we know today would simply cease to exist.

Oil is something that is on all of our minds lately, Japan is no exception. Right now, Japan and China are bickering about some newly discovered oil fields and who has the right to drill them. China is a huge country and needs cheap and abundant oil to keep growing; Japan, isn't growing almost at all and just wants a good supply of oil it can call its own. It seems to be a footnote in WWII history, but when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, it did so in an effort to secure abundant oil fields in the South Pacific and the country was bombing areas in that region simutaneously. Japan also was bitter about an oil embargo the United States was enforcing upon it and a nasty battleship weight restriction the US and Britain tried to hold the country to. Either way, we aren't talking WWII today, we are talking the environment.

I was reading yesterday that China is not placing a chopstick tax on all of the wooden eating utensils it exports to Japan. This is worrying some businesses because most restaurants give free chopsticks to all guests. The price on chopsticks is going from less than one yen a pair to almost 1.7yen. This sounds trivial, but when you consider that Japan goes through billions of chopsticks a year, it adds up. Now the counrty is considering going to places like Vietnam and Russia to secure their eating utensils.

The above statements will probably not make huge waves in the United States but here, they are big deals. When you consider that Japan is one of the world's top three economic superpowers and it relies on the rest of the world in order to keep it that way, its kind of creepy. The United States has a little bit more wiggle room in this area.

Ok, how Japan utilizes the materials it has and gets from other countries.

First, electrical power. If I were to go on my roof right now, I could probably see at least a handful or so solar collectors on the roofs of the houses around me. It is much more common to see a building with solar collectors on it here than in the United States. In one town I pass on the train, almost every building has a solar panel perched atop it.

Japan also utilizes several forms of hydro-power. You will not see many rivers running through this country that do not have man's handprint guiding them. The Japanese utilize their rivers and canals much more than we do. To a lesser extent, there is also a great deal of geothermal activity below Japan and they utilize that as well. Japan also is pioneering in the area of plasma power. In fact, Slashdot had an article on the JT-60 Tokamac, which produced the longest sustained plasma beam a few days ago. They hope ot have a plasma fusion reactor online by 2016 and this would greatly expand the electrical output of the country.

As you travel throughout the country, you will also see many other power saving features built into everyday things. Escalators at the train stations are motion sensing and only turn on when there are people needing to ride them. Fluorecent lighting is also utilized much more here than in the United States. If you were to go to an office building or store, you would see fluorecent bulbs but here, even the houses use them as their primary source of light. My apartment only has one conventional bulb in it. While some of the buildings may have illustrious lighting displays, most do not. Most streets do not have a great deal of lighting on them either. The main reason for lighting a street is as a crime deterrent. If your country doesn't have a lot of crime no need to light the streets. People riding bikes have pedal powered lamps so they have no need for the lights either. Porch lights are not as common here and if a house has one, it is motion sensing.

To conserve water, Japan employs a handful of techniques unique to the country. I have already touched on the rivers and how construction crews are continuously redirecting them or upgrading them. This is something that happens a lot in my area. Japan has a serious lack of natural fresh water and therefore, it must use desalinization plants that have become more common in California over the past few decades. The fresh water it makes is not wasted either. Families do not drain bathwater after one person bathes. Instead, bathwater will be used by several members of the family before it is changed. Baths are almost strictly used for relaxation purposes and when it comes to cleaning, people take quick showers before they slide into the tub for a soak. The Japanese primarily, shower and bathe at nighttime as well. The act of cleaning and bathing is considered very purifying here and is firmly associated with relaxation, something the Japanese believe happens at the end of the day when you unwind. Japan is famous for its thermal baths called "onsen". Since Japan sits on a fault line, geothermal activity is common and extremely easy to utilize for the purpose of onsen building. The government sells licenses for the drilling of onsen and they are very expensive. But if you want to put your town on the map, you drill an onsen or two. I myself cannot visit as many onsen as I like due to my tattoos. All of the onsen in my area, have strict anti-tattoo rules that I have yet to test. These rules are in place to keep out yakuza. Anywho, if you don't go to onsen, you need to make your own hot water and instead of having huge hot water heaters in everyhouse, the Japanese have a way of heating water that saves energy and space. If I were to take off some of the wall panels in my apartment and expose the water pipe to my kitchen or bathroom sink, I would see a coil of water wrapped around the pipe. When you want hot water, instead of tapping a water heater, these coils heat up that specific pipe and as the water passes through the pipe, it gets hot, really hot. The water that comes out of my kitchen's tap is boiling. When I want a Cup O Noodles, I simply put the cup under the faucet and use hot water from the tap. When I moved in, I was warned about the water temperature and to be careful not to touch the water tap after using hot water. The filament gets the pipe so hot, the taps are extremely hot to the touch after producing hot water. I am not talking the normal hot that you would expect, I am talking second degree burn hot.

One fun story about hot water I have is, one day I was using the shower. My shower's water comes from the bathroom sink. I have to flip a little switch on the faucet and that kicks the water over to the shower instead of the sink. So I am showing and cleaning and singing Frank Sinatra tunes and all is well. Then, as I was finishing up "Luck Be A Lady" and getting ready to get out, I reach out of the shower to turn the water off. Now, keep in mind I was relatively new to the apartment at the time and was still getting used to how fast the water temperature can change but when I went to turn off the water I goofed. Instead of turning the hot off first, I turned the cold off and a split second later, I had not a single hair left on the back of my legs. Sitting was also a chore for a while. It took the better part of two weeks for the hair to grow back and it took a few days before my legs stopped being red. What did we learn? Always, make damned sure you are turning the hot off before the cold or just be smart and turn the switch for the water to go back to the sink before turning it off, which is what I do now.

Anywho, to get back to the point, the Japanese are very environmentally conscious. Most buildings have water recylers on the back of them and garbage recyling is pretty much the norm here. My apartment has garbage days for plastics, burnables, glass, and paper. Its a pain in the butt to keep track of and all of the garbage has to go into different colored bags.

That should give you a good idea of how green Japan is. While in spots it may not seem as such, Japan is a friend of the environment. I travel past rice paddies and small farms and gardens everyday, these people repsect their land and use it to its fullest. Soon I will try to make my first of a few posts about farming and rice farming in particular. Until then, its sleepy time.

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