The buzzword in Japan this summer is 節電 (setsuden), or conserving electricity.* For my readers back at home, this is chiefly because, as Alice Gordenker so succinctly put it in her “So What the Heck is That?” column in The Japan Times,
a huge earthquake and tsunami hit northern Japan on March 11, knocking out roughly a quarter of the electricity-generating capacity for the power companies that serve 53 million people in Tokyo, the Kanto plain and Tohoku. In the wake of the disaster there’s been a massive effort to reduce demand for electricity to levels that can be met. The alternative is scheduled rolling blackouts, or worse, sudden widespread blackouts from which it’s difficult to restore power. (“Setsuden,” 17 March 2011.)
I am fortunate to live in a relatively cooler part of the country and far from the affected zone, but while our energy consumption might not directly affect how much energy is getting out to Tokyo and the East, we are also being encouraged to setsuden. There’s been talk of deactivating some of our nuclear power plants, but there’s also a collective feeling that we should seriously reevaluate our energy consumption in general.
It’s hard to discuss setsuden without mentioning the spirit of 我慢 (gaman), a term which means patience, perservance, and endurance and often has an undertone of sacrifice; colloquially, the phrase can mean “deal with it” or “buck up.” In a way, the ideas of gaman and setsuden remind me of World War II: “going without” for the sake of something bigger than yourself. In WWII, this “bigger thing” was Country (or The Good of the People, however one’s country defined that at the time). US propaganda posters urged citizens to grow “victory gardens,” repair and reuse clothing, and to carpool by appealing to their patriotism, fears, and hopes.
Japan’s setsuden campaign, however, is more tied to its contemporary culture of something akin to PSAs: ads in the subway remind us to behave ourselves on the train and send our loved ones New Year’s cards.
Writer Tom Baker has posted his impressions and analyses of the setsuden signs on his blog Tokyo Tom Baker: see “Major Japanese Buzzword: Setsuden”, “Best Design on a Setsuden Sign,” and “Best Wordplay on a Setsuden Poster.” These ads are all within the Tokyo Metropolitan area, an area directly affected by the 11 March earthquake.
If you are living in an affected zone like Tokyo, you might think, “If I turn off this light or if I turn up the temperature in my refrigerator, I can help prevent a blackout!” For those of us in non-affected zones, the direct cause-effort benefit line is more vague. If Tohoku isn’t using my electric plant, why should I turn out the lights or take the stairs? On a recent trip to Kansai I got to see two great examples of “what’s in it for me?” ads in the Kyoto City Subway in Nijôjô Station.
The Nijôjô subway station entrance has a long flight of stairs with a landing and an elevator to provided handicap access. That is, due to the shortness of the staircase, if you can physically made it up and down stairs, there’s really no excuse for using the elevator.
The right side tells you who uses the stairs and when:
Happy people and sad people, too
On rainy days and windy days, too
Adults and children, too
On summer days and winter days, too
Energetic people and people who are feeling down, too
In the rainy season and in snow, too
People in a rush and people taking their time, too
On Sundays and Thursdays, too
Students and workers, too
Like the ads in Tokyo, the message on the stairs appeals to a group mentality of collective gaman. Everyone takes the stairs!, it cheerfully points out. Or, barring physical difficulty, you have no excuse for not taking the stairs–not if it’s a 梅雨 (tsuyu, rainy season) monsoon like the one outside my window right now, not if your girlfriend dumps you, not if you are a worker coming home from the wildest enkai ever–you will take the stairs in Kyoto, and you will like it.
If the bandwagon approach isn’t your thing, try the left side of the stairs, which shows how many calories you burn by using the stairs instead of the elevator. I imagine the calorie-counter (0 .1 calorie for each step) is probably meant to appeal to women, though I suppose anyone who is trying to lose weight or lead a more active lifestyle would take note, and the message is not marked with gendered words or visuals.
Part of me wants to be irritated with the stairway calorie counter because it reminds of how women respond better to “You’ll get wrinkles” rather than “You’ll get cancer and you could die” regarding tanning and smoking–playing to vanity. Also, Japan is most definitely not immune to fad diets, miracle foods, or ubiquitous Internet ads regarding weight loss, and just like back home, there are serious issues with women’s self/body image.**
On the other hand, if it’s effective–if you can save or improve a life by playing to short-term (or shorter-term) effects, should the connection to the obsession with thinness bother me? In this case, an individual’s desire to burn 3 calories on the stairs could benefit all of us:
The person gets the immediate reward of burning calories, however few, and feeling good about himself or herself, and might decide to give the stairs a go at other train stations.
The subway benefits by cutting electricity and by having an elevator that isn’t crowded when a person who actually needs it wants to use it.
The country benefits by cutting extraneous energy usage and, depending on the location, freeing up electricity for Tokyo.
Finally, everyone benefits because this is more environmentally friendly. “Take the stairs, save the earth” isn’t an effect you can see automatically. While 3 calories isn’t a huge deal, if this message reminds you to take the stairs for your health, you may very well benefit in ways you can see or feel. To be honest, my own insistence on using staircases and walking is as much out of concern for my health and my wallet as it is for the environment. Does this campaign make me want to burn calories on the stairs? Maybe a little, but I was going to take them anyway.
As I dug deeper for researching this article, I discovered the calorie counter I had discussed in my last post is also the product of the Moé Moé Challenge Section.
In a 18 May proposal, the section writes,
In response to the perceived notion that “The subway platforms are far away” and “It takes too much time,” we will attempt to improve the image of using the stairs as healthy. In encouraging people to use the stairs, we will attempt to lessen the congestion on the elevators and escalators as well as promoting a more eco-friendly subway.***
Stay Tuned for Part 2: Eco is Moé!
*I have to agree with Makiko Itoh (@makiwi on Twitter) that using this phrase is much easier than using the English, so I’m just going to go with it the same way I use 紅葉 for fall foliage.
**I don’t know if I agree with the conclusions, but, in my experience, the pressure to be thin here is high. Discussing weight is less taboo here than in the US, and my experience living out in the country has been that colleagues, coworkers, and even kids will comment on how “thin” I am. (I think it’s really that I don’t wear the flowing clothes that are in fashion here and that I’m a bit taller than average.)
*** 「地上からホームまで遠い」，「時間が掛かる」という先入観に対して，「階段を使うことで『健康』になれる」という，プラスイメージに転換してい ただく とともに，多くの方が階段を利用していただくことで，エレベーターやエスカレーターの混雑緩和を図り，環境に優しい地下鉄の御利用を促進することを目的と しています。 “Regarding the Posting of ”Calories Expended on the Stairs’ and Shops Participating in the ‘Subway Festival'[地下鉄階段への消費カロリーの掲出と「地下鉄まつり」への出店について]”. (19 May 2011).