Rinbanteiden - a Japanese expression describing rotational planned power outages was a phrase I heard for the first time in the wake of the devastating earthquake and tsunami on March 11.
Destroying large coastal areas in the Tohoku region of northern Japan, and leaving thousands of people dead, injured and deprived of their most basic belongings, the disaster also caused a major breakdown of power supply, affecting wide areas of eastern Japan well beyond the devastated area.
While the radioactive threat, caused by the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, understandably remains the biggest worry in peoples' minds, no less than five thermal power stations in the Greater Kanto area were also either immediately affected by the earthquake or not operating due to ongoing inspections, and some are still not operating, which has placed a heavy burden on the region's entire power grid such as never has been experienced before.
As a result, Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco), which almost has a monopoly on power supply for the region and operates Fukushima Daiichi, decided to implement planned power outages, varying in date, time and area, in order to be able to supply the capital region amid the problems. In addition, many municipalities, including Tokyo - where the lights seemingly never go out - were encouraged to engage in power saving measures, causing darkened store displays and shopping arcades, stalled escalators, dimmed streetlights and railway stations, and limited train services.
Already some national as well as foreign media are reporting about the once before glittering Tokyo that is now seemingly dark and somber in the face of the current crisis. Without a doubt, Tokyo's hot spots such as the famous Shibuya crossing in front of JR Shibuya's Hachiko exit or the world-famous Ginza luxury shopping street look much more vibrant with all the neon signs turned on, lightening up the surroundings as if it were a bright day. Darkened shop windows might seem less attractive to potential shoppers, and fresh food in supermarkets unquestionably looks more appealing with the lights on.
But do we really need all of this illumination? In a city that is known around the world for its bustling streets, sidewalks overflowing with pedestrians, and office workers that seem to be working 24/7, this “darkness” might seem counterintuitive; but then again maybe it's a good thing. I would like to think that in a place like Tokyo, where people are used to getting whatever they need whenever they need it (and how do you define “need,” when in the face of the recent natural disaster countless citizens with their basic needs not met?), many people have just become used to this new lifestyle (a level that is far beyond normal).
In our apartment building in Tokyo's Shinagawa ward, some of the lights have recently been turned off in order to contribute to the required power saving. Already, before the events of March 11, I noticed how none of the indoor lighting would even be turned off during daytime, although the hallways would get enough natural light from the windows, presumably just adding to everyone's electricity bill. While nobody would ever have wished for this catastrophe, we might as well use the opportunity and rethink the way we consume electricity.
With many of East Japan's power plants down, Tepco has already announced that it might not be able to cover for as much as 25% of the electricity demand that is expected to arise during the early summer months.
The future of Tepco and Japan's electricity use as a whole is the elephant in the room. How compensation will be paid to victims of the Fukushima disaster, or air conditioning will be supplied to the nation's salarymen and office ladies in the summer ahead, is anybody's guess.
In anticipation of ensuing problems, would it be so difficult to use electricity a little more consciously? The least possible benefit would be less money spent on electricity, and in case of another nationwide emergency, it might even save many people from unexpected power outages in the first place.
While Japan is already a forerunner when it comes to environmentally friendly technologies in various areas – such as hybrid cars - I am often appalled at how much environmental consciousness seems to fall behind in many peoples' minds when it comes to the little things in daily life. Do we really need convenience stores to operate around the clock? Do nights in Tokyo really have to be bright as day, even when we can easily get along with less illumination?
Light pollution is an issue already being discussed in many other industrialized countries; as the capital of one of the world's most affluent nations - however traumatic the events of March 11 and its consequences may have been - wouldn't this be a unique opportunity for Tokyo to take the lead and move away from a surplus society toward one that is less defined by consumption, and more by a conscious use of electricity, and also other resources for that matter?
Many people in the disaster area still don't have electricity at all and are therefore lacking the basic amenities that city-dwellers are used to. Why don't we, who can afford it, do a little to save energy and try to make all our lives a little more sustainable?
While natural disasters are for the most part uncontrollable events that we have to prepare for to the best of our abilities, we can decide for ourselves to what extent we want to depend on electricity, especially nuclear power. Particularly given that the country is so dependent on imports for resources.