There was a heavy mist in the air today. Sort of a mix between fog and a light rain, it would be familiar to anyone who ever spent time in a port city like London or Boston. What struck me was the fact that all of the people biking to work this morning were holding their umbrellas in the usual fashion, that is to say, overhead and parallel to the ground.
If you have ever biked across the Charles River in early spring on a misty, calm day, you know that this is an absolutely ineffective way to stay dry; you must hold the umbrella out in front of you to create a sort of windshield.
I passed more than 100 bikers this morning, and only one of them was using their umbrella as a windscreen. Everyone else was holding theirs overhead, backs dry and fronts soaking wet.
“Condensed moisture comes from above, dammit, and that’s where I’m putting my umbrella, despite all evidence to the contrary.”
This is not the only logical challenge that has faced me these 15 months in Japan. I was an aerial artist in a green building constructed “weld-free” out of recycled materials to be dismantled into component parts to be distributed to construction companies for reuse.
The architect took advantage of the fact that the building was only going to be used in the spring and summer months to make the building even greener by employing an electricity-free cooling system. Essentially, the design exploits the characteristic heat gradient that develops in an opaque, hollow structure exposed to radiant heating (like a car in the sun or the 33-meter high tuna-fish can of this pavilion). Basically, if you build the structure high enough, the bottom half of the volume will stay at a relatively cool 25-27 degrees Centigrade while all of the superheated air will concentrate itself in the top 10 feet of your structure, at temperatures of 43-47 degrees centigrade.
That is a great exploitation of statistical physics, but it did not take into account that the aerial performers were going to be performing strenuous choreography at that height in hermetically sealed costumes and insulated head-pieces.
By the end of April, we were working at 40 degrees, and notified the pavilion staff that we would not be able to perform safely if the temperature rose above 42 degrees. They responded with dismissive inaction, despite the fact that we were sure to surpass this threshold within weeks.
We found out that the building was actually designed with panels under the roof that could open to let the hottest air escape and asked why they had not been employed. After all, the best way to cool down a car that was parked in the sun is to open the windows, no? Impossible, we were informed. The panels needed to stay shut “in case there is a typhoon.” We explained to the pavilion staff what they must have already known, that typhoons do not simply spring up offshore at the last minute and that we were sure to have enough warning to close a few panels – indeed, in the case of a typhoon, the entire site was to be shut down, rendering moot the question of cancelling shows.
By mid-May, we were working above 42 degrees at the request of the pavilion management despite our repeated insistence that it was a health risk for the performers. They insisted that they were working on the problem, although they seemed to be spending most of their time either observing the performers or suspending a 3-D matrix of thermometers from the ceiling to verify that yes, indeed, it was hot.
Finally, one day, at the suggestion of the riggers, I missed a show at midday when the temperature got above 44 degrees when they did not like the fact that I seemed pale, my face was cool to the touch, and was nauseous after my sixth show of the day. The pavilion staff came up to plead with us, but I told them that if the riggers told me it was not safe, I was not going to literally risk life and limb at 33 meters and 44 degrees.
They were upset. It was my last show of my shift so when my replacement arrived, I took the bus home. I had just stepped into the door of my apartment when I received an urgent page.
“The afternoon performer has passed out from the heat and an ambulance has been called. Can you come back and do the rest of his shows?”
Of course. I had no choice but to agree; I had already missed one show that day, and anyways, once the sun set in the evening, the building radiated the excess heat away quite efficiently resulting in a rapid cool down.
In the weeks that followed, the pavilion staff made several costly, temporary, or just plain illogical attempts at a solution.
One was to paint the roof of the pavilion with a special reflective paint. Fine in theory, but the pavilion was white and reflective to begin with.
The temperature kept rising.
Another was to build a false roof. When I first heard this idea, I thought it was great. They were going to build an auxiliary roof outside, effectively shading the entire building from the direct rays of the sun. No such luck. The false roof was a 9 square meter open-sided drywall platform that was suspended from the ceiling.
The temperature kept rising.
They moved up air conditioning units. Again, a great idea in theory, but as anyone who has taken an elementary class in thermodynamics knows local refrigeration at one end results in a net production of heat at another. Thus, if both ends exist in a closed system, therefore, mechanical and electrical inefficiencies result in an increase in temperature.
The temperature rose faster.
And finally, the coup de grace, they installed a system to pump cooled water from the basement to the top of the pavilion. Basically, they were electrically pumping metric tons of water into a giant, stagnant, rooftop pond. So much for saving electricity. But, happily:
the temperature stabilized.
Unhappily, it was still too hot to work safely (it was now July) and the hottest month of the year was just around the corner.
I am happy to relate that in the end, we found a solution that allowed us to perform the entire month of August without missing a single show due to heat. The solution? The panels were opened.
I have met philosophical and political Japanophiles and Japanophobes and I too have swung back and forth between these two extremes. Both sides would have their own analysis of this experience.
The Japanese are a culture that values group harmony and consensus above all else. In order to solve a problem of such import and magnitude, it was important for all of the engineers involved to carefully think out the nature of the problem and then discuss the solutions thoroughly before acting. This is in contrast to the American duct-tape, quick fix mentality where people compete with each other to solve the problem as quickly and as cheaply as possible and get credit for their ingenuity. Therefore, the window solution was seen as nothing more than a temporary fix that would inconvenience the technical team and cause disharmony in the group. The Japanese corporate system is built in a “bottom to top” model where ideas filter from the engineers on the design floor up through middle management and finally put through to the big bosses. It is strange that Westerners from the more fascist “top to bottom” school of thought are unable to see the benefits of the democratic Eastern system. These acrobats should have been flattered by the time and effort that was spent on fixing the problem.
The Japanese are a culture that distrust all things foreign and obsess about hierarchy and status. Xenophobic by nature, they would have never considered taking the advice of a foreign group. Entrenched in a prejudicial elitism, they preferred to solve the problem through better design and technology rather than the decidedly low-tech solution of opening a few windows. The reason that it took so long to find a solution is that the Japanese educational system rewards conservatism and conformity and stifles the development of creative, lateral thinking. The Japanese engineers were simply too mentally inflexible to see how a perfectly designed building that was functioning exactly as designed could present a problem to anybody, and were unable to step outside of the situation to see a way to fix it. The failed attempts at solving the issue were undoubtedly a result of the paranoid corporate structure in Japan in which an idea posed by a superior is necessarily supported by the underlings who would never dishonor their bosses by questioning their infallibility.
From my point of view, the pavilion staff had a problem that was not going to solve itself without action. The obvious (to my eyes) solution was staring them in the face, but they were unable or unwilling to acknowledge it and take the logical step towards implementing it.
In the same way, the bikers this morning had to know that they were getting wet, and saw it as an inconvenience. Otherwise, why bring an umbrella at all? Again, the problem is right there, literally flying in their faces, and they are unable to make the slightest adjustment from the perceived status quo to fix their situation.
In the end, I can think of no explanation for this somewhat autistic aspect of the Japanese national character. On a good day, I can explain it away as a Japanophile, and on my worst days (like when I am stopped on the street for looking “un-Japanese,” searched from head to toe, asked to present my papers, and then forced to wait while they run a check to make sure that I have not stolen my bike), I condemn such behavior like a true Japanophobe, but in neither case am I any closer to understanding it.