Sunday, June 13, 2010

Nippon Energy

This is not a blog about global warming.  There are several arguments for and against it, and if it helps the reader, I will preface this blog by stating plain and clear that I support the evidence that humans are contributing to global warming.  However, like I said, this is not about global warming.  Instead I want to focus on what I consider a greater catastrophe, the inefficient use of our limited resources.  I think that it is something that concerns everyone.  When they are gone, they are gone, so why not focus on creating a more efficient harmony with those resources - both renewable and non-renewable.  Perhaps this quote from Thomas Friedman's, Hot, Flat, and Crowded, states it better:
"We humans are now playing lead electric guitar in Mother Nature's symphony orchestra.  In doing so, we forget a fundamental truth: We are the only species in this vast web of life that no animal or plant in nature depends on for survival - yet we depend on this whole web of life for our survival.  We evolved within it.  As we adapted to it, it shaped us into what we are.  We humans need that web to survive - it doesn't need us.  But we sure need it - and it thrives only if the whole system works in harmony."
It is true that changing the way we harness and use energy will be expensive, problematic, and come without road blocks and failures.  But that's what happens in the natural cycle of development.  And if we don't change, those scarce resources become more and more expensive.  So, doing nothing now, will cost us dearly in the end.  I believe an energy revolution is the next great revolution and it would be very beneficial to invest in now.  The wheels of ingenuity are spinning all over the globe, even in the countries that choose not to reign in their carbon emissions like China and India.  It is a race, and right now, America seems stalled at the start line.  Private investment is always the preferred method, but there is a case to be made for government initiatives to stir that inventive and entrepreneurial spirit that Americans are famous for.

Japan is a great example of a country off and running.  After living in Japan for nearly two years, it became quite clear that there is a completely different mentality.  There is a greater sense of urgency and a greater spirit for change. Consider this article from Tokyo by Martin Fackler in The New York Times (January 6, 2007):
"In many countries, higher oil prices have hurt pocketbooks and led to worries about economic slowdowns. But here in Japan, Kiminobu Kimura, an architect, says he has not felt the pinch. In fact, his monthly energy bill is lower than a year ago...Energy -efficient appliances abound in the many corners of his cramped home. There is the refrigerator that beeps when left open and the dishwasher that is compact enough to sit on the kitchen counter. In some homes, room heaters have a sensor that directs heat only toward occupants; there are enegy navigators that track a home's energy use. And then Mr. Kimura, 48, says there are the little things that his family of four does to squeeze fuel bills, like reusing warm bath water to wash laundry and bicycling to buy groceries...Japan is the most energy-efficient developed country on earth, according to most specialists, who say it is much better prepared than the United States to prosper in an era of higher global energy prices...Its population and economy are each about 40 percent as large as that of the United States, yet in 2004 it consumed less than a quarter as much energy as America did, according to the International Energy Agency, which is based in Paris.
Japan's obsession with conservation stems from an acute sense of insecurity in a resource-poor nation that imports most of its energy from the volatile Middle East, a fact driven home here by the 1970's shocks. The guiding hand of government has also played a role, forcing households and companies to conserve by raising the cost of gasoline and electricity far above global levels. Taxes and price controls make a gallon of gasoline in Japan currently cost...twice America's more market-based prices. The government in turn has used these tax revenues to help Japan seize the lead in renewable energies like solar power, and more recently home fuel cells...Higher energy prices have also created strong domestic demand in Japan for more conventional and new energy-saving products of all sorts. That has spurred the invention and development of things like low-energy washing machines and televisions and high-mileage cars and hybrid vehicles, experts say. Japanese factories also learned how to cut energy use and become among the most efficient in the world. Companies like Mitsubishi Heavy Industries are now reaping the benefits in booming overseas sales of their highly efficient electric turbines, steel blast furnaces and other industrial machinery, particularly in the United States. The environmental ministry forecasts that exports will help turn energy conservation into a $7.9 billion industry in Japan by 2020, about 10 times its size in 2000."
Japan, the article noted, has also encouraged development of energy-saving appliances with its Top Runner program,
"which has set goals of reducing energy use. Products that meet the goals are awarded a green sticker, while those that fail get an orange sticker. Japan's trade and industry ministry says consumers heed the stickers, pushing manufacturers to raise the energy efficiency. The average air-conditioner now uses two-thirds less electricity than in 1997, and the average freezer 23 percent less, the ministry said. The savings add up. The average household here used 4,177 kilowatt-hours of electricity in 2001, the most recent figure, according to the Jyukankyo Research Institute in Tokyo. In the same year, the average American household consumed more than twice that, or 10,655 kilowatt-hours, according the the Energy Department."
After our time in Japan, I was inspired inspired to take a look at how our energy use while living in Nagoya, Japan compared to our energy use while living in the States (Michigan to be precise).  Using old bills, I compared the energy use from the same time span over the course of 10 months.  The Michigan data is from 2007-2008, while the Nagoya, Japan data is from 2008-2009.  To take the size of each apartment out of the equation, I have calculated the cost and energy use per square foot.  Also, the climates of the two locations are slightly different, so the average monthly temperature is shown.  Finally, it should be noted that I used the average daily exchange rate for 2009 (93 JPY = $1).  The results are below:

It is clear that while living in Japan, we paid quite a bit more for energy per square foot despite using significantly less kilowatt-hours of electricity in every month but January.  Friedman suggests in his book that the US will be on the right track when our monthly energy bill begins showing an increase in cost per kilowatt-hour of electricity, while the overall bill remains the same or has been reduced.  In this 'energy revolution' there are two phenomenon's:
1. A smarter grid paid for by the increased cost per kilowatt-hour
2. A move to cleaner power and efficient means of delivering it
Is this revolution possible?  It'll be up to you and I, and a healthy nudge from the government.  Japan did it, and is continuing to move forward trying to optimize that balance and harmony with our resources.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Japan's Craft Brew Industry

The fact that the self-proclaimed King of Beers, Budweiser, lost market share last year can be directly attributed to the rise in popularity of craft beers in the US.  Indeed, craft beers have been gaining momentum over the last decade as consumers look for more flavorful beer on a more local level.

While it's not fair to say that this phenomenon is global, I can say that it certainly seems to have planted its roots in Japan.  Admittedly, the amount of craft beer in Japan is way behind the US, however, the quality is quite competitive.  Case in point, at last month's 2010 World Beer Cup held in Boulder, Co. Baird's Brewing Company from Numazu, Japan tied for the most gold's with 3:
  • Numazu Lager – American-Style Amber
  • Country Girl Kabocha Ale – Specialty Beer 
  • Saison Sayuri – Belgian- and French-Style Ale

That is no small feat considering the competition included 642 brewers from 44 countries and 47 states offering 3,330 entries for 90 beer categories.  My wife and I were lucky enough to visit Numazu back in March for my birthday with the sole purpose of satisfying our craving for delicious craft brews. You can imagine from the 3 gold medals, we weren't disappointed!

This experience did something a little unexpected.  It helped to plug us into a neat little pipeline of brewers beginning to pop up all over Japan and growing in strength and ingenuity.  For years, craft brewing in Japan was discouraged due to some archaic laws banning home brewing.  However, these laws were relaxed over the last decade, and beer entrepreneurs have begun taken hold.

Our experience at Baird's in Numazu led us to another strong brewer in Ise, Japan (Ise Kadoya), where we visited last month on a day trip.  We met the owner himself, who has traveled extensively in the US over the past few years to learn from masters of the craft beer art there - Dogfish and Stone to name a few.  Because of our efforts in searching for a decent IPA, he rewarded us with a bottle of his own IPA from his personal stash.  It was delicious both for the flavor that included 10 varieties of hops and for the fond memories of meeting the brewer!

The more we dig in, the more we begin to find that there are several craft breweries making headway in Japan.  There's even a new publishing started by some of the brewers encouraging the industry's growth and communication.  It even included a listing of all the craft breweries and their locations currently in Japan.  These craft beers haven't quite found their way to the mainstream market, or the grocer's shelves, but isn't that what craft beers are supposed to be about?  It's about the unique flavor from each individual brewer or region.  I only wish we had more time to search out some of the other brewers!  For now, though, I will relish the memories of Baird and Ise Kadoya.  Who knows?  Maybe with Baird's success in the World Cup of Beers last month, it may soon be available in America!!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Where Do You Think You're Goin'? Grab a Rake!

As pointed out on a previous post, it's not that often that you see grass in Japan.  For the most part, what available space there is after housing, buildings, and infrastructure, is generally designated for rice fields or gardens.  Parks are liberally mixed in most cities where possible, but they don't necessarily come with grass.  Even the parks meant for soccer, field hockey, baseball, etc.  Instead of grass, which requires too much upkeep and water to survive the climate, generally these pitches are simply fine gravel or dirt.

So, what about grounds-keepers?  They aren't very common as far as I can tell.  You use it.  You clean it up.  That's the rule.  And you learn that rule quickly if you grow up playing sports.  I first learned of this rule the hard way.  After a friendly match with another gaikojin (foreigner) team last year on an excruciatingly hot, humid Nagoya day, all I wanted to do was get to the sideline and douse myself with shade and water.  Not so fast.  All of my teammates - the other team got to relax as we were the hosts - quickly told me to pick up a rake from the nearby shed.  We got in a line at the end of the pitch and walked the length of the pitch back and forth until the entire field was nicely groomed.  A bit like a zamboni - only not automated!!!

This is the rule.  If you host a team, or simply use a field for a day of fun, you clean it up.  In this case, rake it up.  I managed to snap a photo of some kids raking this field on a recent Saturday.

I like the rule.  It teaches you a little discipline, while at the same time, makes you appreciate the people who keep our parks clean and beautiful.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

My Lovely Japan Car Accident (Part 3: The Wrap)

It's been over two weeks now, and the dust has settled.  I've had plenty of time to reflect, which, in hind-sight, I guess gets at the heart of some of the public shaming I went through.  To be honest, all of the frustration with work - the reports, the speeches, the safety videos, the funny yellow hats and signs we stood with at the scene of the accident, etc etc - were hard, but not overbearing.  As funny as it sounds, I was okay with it.  In fact, it gave me a chance to brush up on my public speaking.

The hardest part was the waiting and worrying that came with the week between the accident and the policeman's verdict.  His verdict would determine if my wife and I could leave the country as planned on April 29th, or if we would have to wait around for a court case.  You see, a week after the accident, I had to meet with the policeman, the person I hit, and my bosses at the sight of the accident.  There, the policeman gathered both of our stories, to make sure there was no dispute of fault and the exact severity of the accident, before making a judgment on the case.

We drew chalk lines, and discussed the details of the accident, as well as the extent of the whiplash sustained by the man I hit.  Luckily for me, the police judged that the injury was not that severe based on the doctor's official note.  Also, the policeman mentioned that he appreciated my efforts to learn and speak Japanese.  Although I didn't follow a lot of the details of the conversation, he did mention that he would look kindly on my situation because of my efforts to understand Japanese.  'Phew,' I thought at that moment, 'What a relief.'  I couldn't help but think that finally I had a solid reason for waking up at 5am every morning during this Japan adventure to spend an hour studying the language before work.  It was going to get my wife and me home as originally scheduled!

Since the accident, I have lost the privilege of driving my car to work.  Although there was no rule, and despite mine and my colleague's comments from back in America, there is no changing the mind of the department head.  This is also part of the unspoken social rule - don't disturb the balance, and in this case, don't undermine the authority.

But it's okay, actually.  I have a longer commute now - bus and train - which I've come to enjoy.  Plenty of time to read.  Plenty of time to relax and listen to music I haven't listened to in ages.  Plenty of time to properly reflect.  No, not reflect on the accident.  Time for reflection and worrying about that is over.  I'm going home in a few weeks.  It's about time I reflect on the time spent seeing a beautiful country, time spent meeting interesting people from all over the world, and time spent learning an amazingly complex, sometimes stressful, but always intriguing culture.  Time that I will always treasure.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

My Lovely Japan Car Accident (Part 2: The Shaming)

The Japanese are fond of an old proverb:
"A pebble thrown in the water creates a ripple eventually felt by the entire pond."  In other words, the Japanese like to do what they can to avoid disrupting society because every action, no matter how small, has its reactions.

It wasn’t until my recent car accident that I finally understood fully what that philosophy means.  You see, I thought the worst of my problems occurred the day of the actual accident  - dealing with the insurance, police, rental cars, and the person I rear-ended…and all in a foreign language of which I understood little.  However, it was the fallout afterward that truly tested my patience and strength of character.

I quickly found out that this accident wasn’t just about me or the person that I hit.  It was the company’s problem because there is an image to uphold, especially as an automotive supplier.  It was my superior’s problem because they are responsible for my training and me.  Finally, it was my peers’ problem because this was a problem within the system.

Perhaps my father’s analogy for the situation explains it best:
"You are part of a machine, and a fly flew into your gear, so now, if this was on the assembly line think of what would happen.  Meetings to evaluate why and how that fly got in there, by the whole work team of course.  And the Manager will have to answer for that fly every day at staff meeting with some sort of action plan.  So, more grease applied daily now, hourly inspection for any more flies, the whole department must spray fly killer every two hours, etc."

So, what was the fallout, list of activities, countermeasures, what-have-you…
1)     The day after the accident, Tuesday, I had to watch a safety driving video showing potential accidents and the damage they can cause.  With my entire division, of course (about 80 people).
2)     The following day, Wednesday, I had to write a report detailing my commute to and from work complete with detailed maps and potential accident locations.  The potential accident locations had to explain what the problem was and what I should do every day to avoid it.
3)     Thursday I stood in front of the department and explained the accident, what my error(s) were, and how they should be avoided in the future.  The speech itself was nerve-racking enough, but doing the speech partially in Japanese was even more humiliating.
4)   Finally, on Friday I got the wonderful news that the department general manager had decided that I could no longer drive to work.  Of course, the length and details of the penalty…ahem…risk management…was unclear, but it was clear that the general manager had spoken and there was no challenging that.

This all came on the heels of news from the police – through my manager – that the report may not be complete before the date I was due to leave (April 29), and thus, I may not be able to leave the country.  That news would not be finalized until a final meeting between the police, and both parties the following week.

So, by last Friday, this pebble had definitely caused some waves, and the wheels were in motion by everyone to calm the waters.  The water seemed pretty calm to me, but I guess that’s what cultural education is all about, and I was definitely feeling the reverberations.

So, what did I learn?  What was my ‘reflection’?  Stay tuned for the final installment…