How Social Norms Affect Heat Risk in Japan

While eating unagi (eel) is a traditionally Japanese response to uncomfortable heat. Another is to install light, tinkling wind chimes, as some places did during Japan’s unprecedented 2022 summer heat waves.

As with the eel, wind chimes have no obvious connection to cooling. The mechanism is thought to be more psychological.

“Certain senses impact the ability to judge their own feelings. For example, when Japanese people hear wind chimes, they feel calm and cool,” according to Shigenori Asai, deputy director of the Japan Water Forum (JWF).

2022 marks the 20th year that the JWF has organized its uchimizu countryanother culturally specific practice that some people see as a heat relief measure. Uchimizu is simply to sprinkle water on the outside. The JWF encourages people and organizations across the country to engage in uchimizu to cool small areas for short periods.

Uchimizu is an old custom in Japan, says Asai, who has seen a resurgence since the Covid-19 pandemic and increased time spent at home. A notoriously hot Kumagaya group even produced a memorable song and dance number about uchimizu. According to Asai, this is most commonly practiced around the house, although a number of stores also pour water onto sidewalks for cleaning and cooling purposes.

To save water, “We made a rule not to use tap water, but to use waste water and collected rainwater,” says Asai. However, “rainwater storage and rainwater reuse are less common than before.”

Asai acknowledges that the effect may only last for 10 minutes and may not be helpful in high humidity. But he believes there is a wider benefit, if the uchimizu draws more attention to both water conservation and the need for heat protection.

Kazutaka Oka, who studies climate adaptation at Japan’s National Institute for Environmental Studies, is diplomatic about the practice, which can in some cases make the humidity worse.

“Scientifically, it doesn’t have a big impact. But it has other meanings,” says Oka, such as educational and cultural associations. “I’m a scientist, but I also think culture is very important.”

Culture can sit uncomfortably alongside science in discussions of climate adaptation. But it is useful to understand how the two are related.

For example, physical strength is assessed in different ways depending on gender and social roles. One example is the Sanitation Worker Teams. This is a trade prone to heatstroke, according to the Tokyo Sanitation Workers Uniongiven the very physical nature of the work.

Takayuki Sakabe, the union’s vice-president, says: “Summer is probably the most difficult season of the whole year. It is more painful than the rainy season, the cold or even the typhoons, he believes. “Even seasoned workers can still get it…they can never get used to the heat.”

Shuichiro Tada, general secretary of the union, points out that this is a growing risk. “In recent years, the temperature has not risen gradually. It’s a sudden increase. This makes it more difficult for the bodies to acclimatize.

The social aspects of work can be both helpful and harmful. For one thing, a team member of three or four can call the office and request a pick-up if a co-worker has symptoms of heatstroke.

On the other hand, says Tada, in a relationship between a sempai and one kōhai (a senior and a junior), the older person may be too proud to show weakness. They might try to hide how sick they are from the heat until it’s too late.

Another way social expectations affect sanitation workers in the heat is that residents sometimes complain when they see sanitation workers taking breaks. There have been cases of people publicly shaming sanitation workers, or even filing complaints, about sanitation workers not wearing face masks or resting with drinks. The concern is that this leads to these workers failing to protect themselves from high heat – rest and hydration being essential forms of protection.

Osamu Tadachi, the general secretary of the National Council of Japanese Fire and Paramedics, reports the same phenomenon for paramedics, who also perform physically demanding jobs. According to Tadachi, “In the UK and the US, firefighters and paramedics are treated like heroes. But in Japan, you have to be perfect. He says there is a perception that civil servants should be role models for the rest of society – even if that means not resting in public.

Tadachi describes Koshigaya, where he works, as an exposed plain. Much of the city is either industrial or purely residential, so for people on the outside, “you have nowhere to escape to”.

On the day I spend in Koshigaya, it has the highest wet globe temperature in Japan (WBGT, which measures heat stress in direct sunlight), at 35. That’s well past 33 years, the threshold at which the Japan Meteorological Agency begins to issue heat stroke alerts. . It’s so hot and there are so few shaded areas that I can feel the metal edges of my sunglasses heat up on my face.

The high heat in this situation is due to a combination of climate change, geography and heat-trapping urban design. This shows that it is dangerous to attribute too much heat vulnerability to cultural aspects. After all, the physiology of heat vulnerability, unequal public health risks, and ever-increasing temperatures exist around the world. And the focus on culture risks undermining governmental and institutional responses to climate change, which will ultimately have a greater impact than individual measures.

On the other hand, it may be instructive to see how certain social norms might inhibit or contribute to heat protection. from Japan public health mascot culture inevitably includes cute mascots specially for heat prevention (even if they are little used). It’s the kind of messaging tactic that could help raise awareness of heat-related health risks, perhaps without diverting people’s attention.

Then there are all the common practices that contribute to heat resistance. A very visible example is parasols, which are widely worn by Japanese women during the summer. The umbrellas are simple but effective to protect against solar radiation, yet extremely underused in many other countries. Next week Kumagaya will start distribution of fiberglass umbrellas to children for this reason, although the measure comes months after the record-breaking heat wave of early summer.

A dizzying array of personal cooling products are also available in Japan, although these have varying degrees of effectiveness and marketing gimmicks.

Technology is advancing all the time, but there are still some limits to what cooling devices can do and who can afford them. For example, the Tokyo Sanitation Workers Union, some of whose members have been testing cooling jackets, reports that many of them remain too difficult to move into and keep charged.

Instead, the union is asking for lighter loads for its members in the summer, reduced from five garbage collection trips a day to four. Under this proposal, local governments would hire other workers to make up the shortfall.

The construction and sanitation industries are aging, as the average age of workers increases and fewer young workers enter the field. Workers also come up against entrenched ideas about when and how work should be done.

Ultimately, as the country with the oldest population, with a strong heritage in disaster risk management, Japan will be an important touchstone for the rest of the world when it comes to managing health effects of extreme heat.

The government has set itself the goal of zero deaths from heat stroke, without establishing a specific year to achieve this objective. Hopefully this step will be taken as soon as possible. Thousands of lives are at stake every year.

The other article in this series discusses social isolation and oppressive heat.

Reporting for this article was supported by the Social Science Research Council and the Japan Foundation Center for Global Partnership, through the Abe Fellowship for Journalists. This story was reported with Chie Matsumoto.

About Marjorie C. Hudson

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