“Electricity is really just organized lightning.” ~ George Carlin
“Genius hath electric power which earth can never tame.” ~ Lydia M. Child quotes
“For the love of god,” I think to myself, “how long can the toaster actually take?!?”
Jody walks out of the bedroom, hair done, clothed, and made-up for work. Her lunch is packed, hot tea ready for the drive in her go-cup, orange juice is poured, and the fried egg is still sizzling, although now resting off the heat of our gas stove.
She smiles at me, ready to eat. Jody is a breakfast girl, and needs her protein in the morning to carry her through until lunch. “Sorry Doll, waiting on the toast,” I mumble apologetically. She fumbles getting her bag packed for work, while I attempt to will the toaster to conclusion by dirty looks and whatever telekinetic mental energies I may or may not possess.
Our toaster can really take that long.
It may jolt you, but we have endured a plethora of electrically related issues living on the economy – and local power grid – in Okinawa. First while the outlets here sometimes match American plugs (read more below than you probably care to about this “fit”), there are only two dual outlets in our living room, and two dual outlets in our dining area. Of those, NONE are grounded; we have to use 3-to-2 prong adapters, which leaves our machines unprotected. Of those outlets, one of the four is dedicated to our TV and other media devices, while another is dedicated to our computer and its peripheries. That doesn’t leave much excess for, say, lighting, or, perhaps, a vacuum!
On a more positive charge, American-style three-prong grounded outlets are found in our kitchen in the guise of ONE quad outlet. What light bulb failed to illuminate in the architect’s mind in distributing power, and then the right flavor of power? At least on the other side of our u-shaped kitchen countertop is an ungrounded dual outlet.
And then the Japanese air conditioners and heated, electrical toilet seats (if we had them) plugs are all grounded in a very odd way: the green grounding wire is not a third prong on the plug like we are used to, but rather a pigtail wire than is designed to be set into a specialized grounding screw on specially designed outlets for these rather ubiquitously eccentric Japanese items. In other words, these specialized pieces of equipment required specialized outlets.
In a rather shocking twist (pun intended), I’ve discovered that Japan’s electric infrastructure is not very compatible…or well-designed, either on the micro or macro scale. Electrifying Japan involves the use of TWO differing power grids. Japan’s west operates at 60 hertz, while the eastern areas, including Tokyo and Fukushima (of the late radiological disaster fame), run on 50-hertz.
What’s in a hertz, you ask? Everything, when it comes to powering Japan. But first, one of my favorite nerdy – and related jokes. See below (snicker-snicker….).
The “one country, two systems” usually works fine, at least in terms of China keeping Hong Kong relatively unmolested. In average times in Japan, there are enough power plants in each of the two independent grids that electricity can be shifted around within each grid if there are spikes in demand or temporary outages. However, there is only a very limited amount of power that can be easily (and cheaply) transmitted across the 50-hertz/60-hertz continental divide, as it were. Think of the two grids in Japan being separated by a giant electrified fence.
Plus, most electrical timing devices that are not dual-frequency ready rely specifically on their electrical feed’s frequency to physically measure the passage of time. Think about how the Central Processing Unit (CPU) in your computer is characterized! Things designed for higher frequencies literally slow down with lower power cycles.
The real short in the circuit however recently sparked dramatic headlines in the unplanned and massive shortage of electrical power resulting from the destruction of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant and the subsequent abandonment of nuclear power throughout the country. Creating the proper linkages between the 50-hertz and 60-hertz systems to meet demand and capacity is both expensive and time-consuming. Limited movement of power between the partitioned national grids does exist, but not in the capacity to meet geographic demand. Tokyo thus has suffered some rolling blackouts due to urban demand outstripping supply, but thankfully not nearly as extensive as predicted.
While power generation from nuclear energy has long-been a national Japanese priority, since the Fukushima accident in 2011, there has been a growing concern about the ability of Japan’s other nuclear plants to withstand both earthquakes and, in some cases, tsunamis due to frequent and substantial seismic activity. For example, the Prime Minister at the time ordered another nuclear power plant (Hamaoka) shutdown based solely on the expectation of an earthquake of magnitude 8.0 or greater in the next 30 years. Probably a good call.
Japan’s electrical demand plays out in the numbers: Japan consumes 15% more than the European Union average…historically speaking. It’s odd that for a country so ecstatic about brightly lit neon signs and building-sized LCD billboards continues to use both 50 and 60hz in a national split with no compelling technical reasoning behind the convention, along with no real apparent desire to standardize their domestic power grid, let along match that of other worldwide standards!
The incompatibility between the two grids in Japan is based solely on historical reasons. The first purchases of generators for Japan were from two different companies, each with a diverse standard of electrical power. Generators for Tokyo were purchased in 1895 from AEG, a German company loosely affiliated with Edison (50Hz). However, in 1896, generators for Osaka were sourced from General Electric (60Hz). Once those currents were in place, they continued to arc in incompatible ways throughout the rest of the Japan islands!
What does this all mean about living in Okinawa?
Most of the older outlets in Japan (and Okinawa) remain non-polarized and ungrounded, which means the pins of an item’s plugs must be the same size, a convention that America discarded long ago. In other words, plugs on our stuff have pins where one in significantly wider than the other.
Some North American electrical devices work fine in Japan – if you are lucky enough to have polarized outlets that will accept the plugs. However, certain items, specifically those involved in any type of heating (like our K-Cup machine, microwave, and iron!), may not work properly, but more often just work much slower. Luckily for us, Okinawa happens to be on the 60Hz grid, so our timing-dependent stuff works just fine. However, I would gladly trade a few hertz on my computer for quicker hot tea in the morning, or a microwave that can be literally 20% faster.
But don’t get me started on our toaster….
For more information and the primary sources I’ve used, please see the following: