Electrifying Incompatibilities in Japan


“Electricity is really just organized lightning.”  ~ George Carlin

“Genius hath electric power which earth can never tame.”  ~ Lydia M. Child quotes

I would wait more patiently for toast if the product was more...artistic.

I would wait more patiently for toast if the product was more…artistic.

“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.

Unlike me, Dragon Ball Z Cell's power is in little doubt....

Unlike me, Dragon Ball Z Cell’s power is in little doubt….

Our toaster can really take that long.

Find the only grounded outlets in our kitchen.

Find the only grounded outlets in our kitchen.

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!

These plugs are compatible; too bad we hardly have any.

These plugs are compatible; too bad we hardly have any.

 

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.

A typical Japanese air conditioner...or electric toilet seat outlet.

A typical Japanese air conditioner…or electric toilet seat 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.

Perhaps we can turn to Pokémon as an alternate (and renewable) power source.

Perhaps we can turn to Pokémon as an alternate (and renewable) power source.

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.

screen-shot-2011-04-01-at-8-12-52-am

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….).

Perhaps the best Dilbert strip, EVER.

Perhaps the best Dilbert strip, EVER.

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.

Even conservation is cute in Japan.

Even conservation is cute in Japan.

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.

map-japan-power-300

TheGreatWaveOffKanagawa-with-nuclear-reactor20120505_ASD001_0The 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.

You just know that Godzilla is bound to get involved in the nuke debate....

You just know that Godzilla is bound to get involved in the nuke debate….

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.

2011-march-13--japan-tsunami-nuke-power-safety-600x402

Electricity Conservation Poster

Electricity Conservation Poster

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!

Personal conservation efforts are rather pointless in face of this conspicuous consumption.

Personal conservation efforts are rather pointless in face of this conspicuous consumption.

Electricity Conservation Poster

Electricity Conservation Poster

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!

572px-Power_Grid_of_Japan_svg

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.

ea6041_type_a_japenese

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….

I don't care about brave.  I wish my toaster got hotter in Japan!

I don’t care about brave. I wish my toaster got hotter in Japan!

For more information and the primary sources I’ve used, please see the following:

Japan’s Electrical Bottleneck

Japan’s Nuclear Restart

http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2225.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Utility_frequency

Power in Poverty


“Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty.” ~Mother Teresa

Floating Village on the Mekong River

Floating Village on the Mekong River

The blog I authored yesterday about the real nature of possessions got me thinking last night, during a very late night of sorting my own possessions in the midst of our three different moves, of a fling I took to the Far East back in 2007.  It involved a trip into Cambodia, one of my most memorable trips, and although the main thrust of that foray was to see and experience Angkor Wat, I also took a river trip along the Mekong to a “Floating Village,” made up of primarily Vietnamese (see above).

The fascinating issue here centers not primarily on possession, but more on the nature of poverty.  And not poverty with a Western flare (so to speak), but poverty seen through a completely different cultural filter, one that may be hard for many if not most Westerners to understand, let alone appreciate.

There is no question that most people in this rural part of Cambodia along the border with Vietnam live in what we would consider severe poverty.  That alone is hard for any of us reading this – with a computer, an internet connection, besides the discretionary time to spend reading….  Oh, and just consider that fact that if you are reading this, you CAN read (and think a teacher, mind you). 

People are the Ultimate Power

People are the Ultimate Power

The question is, if you lived in such conditions, what would you do with a very limited amount of power.  Not like power over the weather or our destiny.  But simply electrical power.

As you can see from my photos of the trip, the nature of this lifestyle is quite unique.  The homes are all located in a flood plain of a major Asian river, and most are not placed on pilings, but rather they float.  Most people live a typical 3rd world rural existence, working primarily agriculture.  And like most other similar areas, without the idea of birth control (not even considering access), there are large families, and kids are both independent and put to work very quickly.

Homestead Dichotomy

The Dichotomy of Homesteads in Rural Cambodia

There are also floating shops, stores and services for all the typical needs of life.  But not too many wants….

So, back to the central question about power.  There is a sense of wordplay here between power and electricity.  What we all take as background, as something that is simply “there” when we need it, in quantities and qualities required, is also there when  we want it.  And needing and wanting are two quite different things.  In a very basic analysis of the modern first world, electricity does indeed equal power. 

The Most Reliable Form of Washing Machine

The Most Reliable Form of Washing Machine

Look at it this way.  The first world has moved from agriculture, through manufacturing, trailing off in technology, but fully enveloped in information.  Decades ago without access to the snail-mail service, and then landline-based phone service, people were at a severe disadvantage.  Today that still holds partially true; however, real and substantial disadvantage now portends from lack of internet access.  Which requires computers.  Which require electricity.  Steady, constant, quality power.

So, in this floating village, as you might guess, there is extremely limited electricity.  There are no power lines, very few generators (which are mainly reserved for tourist shops and restaurants), where most fuel goes to a few boat engines…. 

But there are batteries.

Like large car or marine batteries.

Which are used daily, picked up by boat service and recharged at a charging station, and redelivered prior to dark.

Battery Recharging Shop

Battery Recharging Shop

And these most people have, and consider prize possessions.  So, back to the central question:  what we YOU use such a limited amount of power for?

So, maybe this battery power would be used for lighting.  Lighting allows an expansion of productivity, which may be important to people who probably measure their potential incomes and livelihood by the arc of the sun in through the skies. 

Nope – there’s candles and oil for lights at night.

How’bout refrigeration?  Being able to store and preserve food over time certainly would lend a dramatic improvement in quality of anyone’s life.

Floating Dry-Goods Grocery Store Delivery

Floating Dry-Goods Grocery Store Delivery

Nope – there’s a daily delivery of dry goods and foodstuffs from a floating grocery store, as well as fresh dairy (and adult beverages) available from a floating drink vendor.

Floating Drink Sales

Floating Drink Sales

Maybe you would use if for a small combination washer/dryer, commonplace throughout Asian where space and economy are so very important.  Oh, and the top brands of these appliances are made by the Asian car manufactures!

Nope.  There’s laundry service as well.  And of course the river is used for manual washing, and solar wind energy provides all the drying most all day long.

Floating Laundry Service

Floating Laundry Service

No, all these ideas are sound and completely plausible.  And there are all taken for granted in our lives and lifestyle.

No, what really matters to the people of this floating village is…

…what for it…

Television.

Look at the photos closely.  The photos provide all the clue necessary to deduce the use of power in this village….  Look at all the arerials, tall antenni needed to drawn in a signal transmitted by the city of Siem Reap many, many miles away!

TV Antenna and Traditional Wedding Dress

TV Antenna and Traditional Wedding Dress

It seems almost inexplicably that these people would turn to TV above all the other necessities of life.  Television is a want, not a need.  And there could be wholly rational, sound, logical arguments for using such a limited power supply for most anything else.

Floating Junk & Color TV

Floating Junk & Color TV

But in their world, perhaps, power is not as important as escape.  If you think about it, television for many is a way of dreaming made concrete.  A way to breakout of the drudgery of daily life and live an existence that is simply beyond reach and physical attainment.  It is, without doubt, every bit as important to these peoples as the substance sustainance of life itself.

There is indeed power in poverty, even in the most rural and remote corners of the earth.  Next time your thrown a light-switch, turn a computer on, or run any appliance in your house, think about how rich and gorged our lives our with such abundant power.  Give thanks, be thankful, and acknowledge the richness of life where, for us, the grass is certainly greener.

Floating Dreamers

Floating Dreamers

And please, never stop dreaming….