The Japanese way of keeping their homes warm

It's winter. You're at home and it's cold. In most developed countries, you crank up the thermostat or ratchet open the radiator. Ah, central heating. I remember it well.

In Japan, you hit the floor to huddle under the heated coffee table or stretch out on the electric carpet. That's if you follow the Japanese way of warmth.

After more than five years in Tokyo, I still pretend I have central heating in my home. What I really have is three air conditioners, positioned near the ceiling for maximum cooling effect, that also produce hot air. Since all the warmth naturally hovers overhead, my wife and I run fans to circulate the heat.

The combination keeps the place warmer than the outdoors, but several degrees shy of fully toasty. We have a nice collection of sweaters, shawls, throw blankets, woolly socks, etc.

You don't have to be a foreigner to realize that it's hard to stay warm in Japan. Kazuyo Naito is a Tokyo grandmother who spent several years living in Russia. "Moscow was better," she says. "It was warmer." Which it isn't - not outside, anyway.

But inside, there was the marvel of central heating. Ms. Naito liked it so much, she had a central-heating system installed in her small Tokyo apartment - and then took it out because it was so expensive to operate. Now she's back to using an air conditioner that also heats and a hotto carpetto underfoot.

Japanese use other strategies to get through winter. A hot bath in the evening leaves a warm glow that lasts until you're under the covers. The ubiquitous electrically heated toilet seat makes an unheated W.C. almost inviting. And then there is plain old endurance, a quality that Japanese routinely urge each other to display.

Like a lot of things here, the Japanese way of warmth is quirkily unique. It's a manifestation of history and tradition, on the one hand, as well as modern-day economic realities.

Japan's neighbors, the Koreans, long ago developed a system for warming the floors of their homes - a delightfully cozy form of central heating. But Japanese homes, says architectural historian Kazuko Koizumi, "are built mainly with the summer climate in mind."

Traditionally, that meant dividing living spaces with sliding doors and rice-paper screens, rather than walls. Even exterior walls could be slid out of the way. This design made for lots of breezes and lousy insulation.

For warmth, people huddled around an indoor hearth called an irori, or warmed themselves with a hibachi. They also put the hibachi under a table, surrounded it with a large quilt, and tucked their legs inside - an arrangement called a kotatsu.

Japan's old houses are museum pieces now, but their heating devices persist in updated forms. In 1997, two-thirds of Japanese homes had an electric carpet - the modern-day irori - and 81 percent had a kotatsu, although today they are warmed by electricity, not glowing coals.

Despite the fact that high-tech gizmos and conveniences abound in Japan, the idea of centrally heating a home has not caught on. Central heating is reserved for offices, the homes of rich Japanese, and apartment buildings for foreigners with big budgets.

Partly, the reason is money. Japan imports virtually all its energy, and convoluted distribution systems make for the highest electricity and gas prices in the industrialized world. It's a lot cheaper to keep a kotatsu warm than to heat the whole house.

There are also some cultural subtleties. As Professor Koizumi notes, sitting around the kotatsu brings people together - an attractive feature in a group-oriented society. "Japanese people have a strong desire to sit," she adds, another factor that explains the enduring popularity of spot heating over warm rooms and houses.

Home builders say they are incorporating better insulation and optional central-heating systems, but this winter's edition of the Matsushita Electric Industrial Co.'s heating-goods catalog shows that the old ways are going strong.

There are pages of hotto carpetto and gizmos such as rechargeable heated slippers, a butane-powered heated belt, and endless permutations on the kotatsu. "When it comes to comfort," says Matsushita executive Takashi Imamura, "maybe Japanese tend to feel better if the floor is warm, and the air is a bit cooler."

In our home, our feet freeze while our heads overheat. I should have bought a hotto carpetto years ago.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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