Tuesday, March 27

The Kotatsu and other Japanese winter rituals that seem like good ideas but definitely aren't

Naked Man Festival : Japanese runners representing the feeling you will get reading this article.

The Japanese have such a multifaceted society. They are at once global and parochial, fraternal and isolating, uber-modern yet archaic. All of these features manifest in positive ways; the modernity of Japan can be summarized in their ground-breaking technologies while the archaic side reflects the wealth of their heritage accessible to many. In a large contrast, some of these facets have negative sides (cue dramatic, bleak music that plays to the end of this article).

In fact, Japan's booming technology makes a joke of their archaic heating systems. Back in Japan, I wrote a blog on Catching One's Death from the winter cold. In America, the truth is that those who don't have central heating are poor. In Japan, those with central heating are probably rich. But central heating isn't generally a coveted item for the Japanese (as for the ex-pats, it is). In fact, although many Japanese will complain about how samui (cold) it is, they are very accustomed to their thin walls, high electric bills, and walking around their house generally a little bit cold.

Also, there's the kotatsu idea. It's a table with a heater underneath and over it is draped a blanket--so you imagine sleeping under it would be a good idea. It looks so cozy! Then you wake up as if from a drug binge with a soar throat and body aches. The table is designed so that you can heat your legs the entire time you sit under it. The problem is, sitting under the table is the only time you have heat, unless you are pumping kerosene into other heaters strategically placed in your house (also requiring electricity).

The kotatsu seems like a great idea, until you want to get up. (photo)
In Japan Times, in his hilarious article entitled "A Winter's Tale: cold homes, poor lives in wealthy Japan" Gianni Simone gives an interesting anecdote about those that live in the colder northern Japanese areas like Hokkaido. He says:
According to architectural adviser Keiji Ashizawa, [...] "Only in Hokkaido is there such a thing as the Law on Cold Residences, and the Government Housing Loan Corp. gives financial assistance to homes protected against the cold. They say that people from Hokkaido catch colds when they come to [southern places like] Tokyo, because they traditionally live in houses insulated and warmed through central heating."
Now, I generally am a complainer but the ubiquitous Japanese cold really takes the cake for aggravations. I love winter, and even play sports in the cold, but sitting still in a barely-heated room is like torture. Interestingly enough, most Japanese students endure this torture every winter. I remember my feet being so cold for so long in schools that some of my toes wouldn't contract right. If that doesn't sound impressive for heating mishaps, try walking without three of your toes.

Now go read that Japan Times article.


  1. Also, there is the sad fact that Kotatsu heaters lead to over 30 deaths a year. Mostly elderly people who use them in the summer to counter act "chills" caused by their overheating bodies. The perspiration causes them to feel too cold, so they turn on the Kotatsu heater, climb in, and then die of heat stroke in their sleep.

    I was at my wife's aunt's family's house, and the grandpa, a 91 year old gentlman, came in from working in the garden. He washed up then climbed into the Kotatsu. I was beside myself because it was the middle of summer. In Kyushu!

    I warned Sayaka's aunt that people die like that every year. She laughed, brushed it aside, and never even mentioned it.

    Not only did I find her response totally typical of the Japanese mindset, I also find it highly irresponsible.

    Unintentional suicide by Kotatsu is just laughable. There shouldn't even be this problem, and there wouldn't be, if they properly insulated their homes.

  2. I've never tried one of these heat tables but it sounds kinda scary exposing your legs to such heat like that, while I'm guessing the rest of your body is heated only by itself.

  3. Wow, Tristan, I had no idea that has been happening. I wonder if it's a required warning in the directions. But if we think in terms of rate of people dying, is 30 deaths a year in the auto industry enough for a call-back? A lot of American practices are highly irresponsible, too. (Not that I don't completely agree with you...)

  4. A kotatsu is a low, wooden table frame covered by a futon, or heavy blanket, upon which a table top sits. Underneath is a heat source, formerly ... www.kotatsutable.org

  5. The kotatsu is a low table which has been covered with a heavy blanket. It is different and unique because this table comes with a heating element on the underside. It is a traditional Japanese way to keep you warm. One can put his/her legs under the blankets in the heated space.


You should probably engage in some conversation.