If you’ve been studying Japan or Japanese for any length of time, then you know that studying a different culture can challenge your basic, everyday assumptions about, well, pretty much everything.

Before you started getting interested in Japan, maybe you never imagined eating raw fish or using kanji. But it can go deeper than that too. Take comfort, for instance.

You might think that comfort is a universal value — everybody everywhere likes to be comfortable, right? Apparently, what you might think is comfortable might be damn near insufferable to whole swaths of the world.

A recent article in the New York Times called What Does It Mean to Be Comfortable? takes a look at what it means to be comfortable in different cultures across the world. It turns out that “comfortable” is a concept with a lot of flexibility, and is much more culturally based than you might think.

What is Comfortable?


Photo by chriss

The Japanese idea of “comfortable” is on the move, so to speak. The Japanese have different ideas about comfort from other cultures – the articles uses the Norwegians and their love of koselighet, or coziness, as an example – but it’s nothing too radical.

As you might be able to tell from sometimes drafty Japanese houses, you’d correctly assume that the Japanese are, compared to other cultures, generally okay with being a little chilly.

What’s really interesting though is that as countries and cultures become more and more exposed to each other, they begin to change. According to the Times article, the Japanese once considered air conditioning not only unnecessary, but “unhealthful and unpleasant.”

Can you really blame them? New, foreign technology is usually met with a healthy dose of skepticism, no matter where you are in the world.

But that changed. Obviously, most Japanese are a-okay with air conditioning nowadays, preferring the artificial cold to the hot, humid Japanese summers. Japanese attitudes towards the frigid winters have started to change too. Space heaters and other methods of keeping warm have been on the rise in Japan for decades.

What it means to be comfortable in Japanese culture is a shared idea that’s never settled, and always up for debate. Even after the Japanese had adopted air conditioning, the pendulum started to swing in the other direction.

Cool Biz


Japan’s biz: the coolest.

In recent years, the Japanese government has promoted a “Cool Biz” program that encourages working people to ditch the suit and tie in the summer, crank down the AC and embrace the Hawaiian shirt. The government started Cool Biz with the goal of saving energy, but it might have farther reaching cultural effects than getting people to turn off the lights.

It’s incredible to see that cultural ideas like comfort adapt and evolve based on the here and the now. Does that mean that other, bigger concepts can change too? As long as I get to wear a Hawaiian shirt, I’m down.

  • Jen

    You say that most Japanese people are comfortable with frigid air conditioning, but in my experience in Ibaraki people think too much air conditioning is morally wrong. It’s all about setsuden! (energy saving). At the school I teach at students would complain if it was too cold.

  • Meredith Peruzzi

    I thought this was going to be about culture shock, and instead I got climate control! I do love the Cool Biz thing though, that always amused me. One of my students, an older gentleman, refused to wear anything Cool Biz style. I asked him about it, and he said he would feel lazy and wouldn’t get any work done if he didn’t wear a coat and tie! I could only chuckle to myself, picturing him stifling at his desk, sweating quietly as he did his work.

  • Kerensa

    I find that in Japan even on cold days there are people who will open their windows to “air out the home.” A month or so back I told my coworker I was looking forward to spring so I could open my windows. She looked at me, astonished, and asked if I ever opened the windows [in the winter]. I told her no because it was a waste of electricity to heat the room up again if I were to do that. She laughed, almost as if she didn’t really believe me, and said that my home must be pretty stinky and mentioned that I should open my windows time to time to let out the bad kuuki.

    I don’t know what it’s like to teach in a high school, but I have visited one to see a friend during the colder months and was surprised how chilly it was in the classroom. I thought my high schools were cold in the winter–but boy, I saw I had nothing to complain about. I’m from Minnesota (which is supposedly renowned for it’s cold climates during the winter) and even I was surprised how students sat in their classrooms (no coat, just in their usual uniform) in chilly temperatures.

    In the summer, down here in Kyushu, they try to hold back on the AC for energy saving purposes. It gets rather hot and humid but people just seem to push through it. For myself, I’ve never sweat so much in my life as I have here. I thought Minnesota summers were hot, but boy was I wrong. The AC is never cold enough.

  • Lottie

    Airing the house is kinda important, not just to get the stink out, but also humidity, and of course to get fresh oxygen in. Opening all windows at once for just a few minutes (or only one, if it’s really cold) will allow a lot of air to change without cooling the house down very much. Wet air needs more energy to get warm, so by airing the house and “drying” the air, you actually save energy! And don’t forget about all the germs that like to crowd in un-aired places.
    Honestly, I’m not really a big fan of air conditioning… though I can understand, if you live somewhere, where it really gets hot. Living in Germany, I guess I’m kinda in a similar climate zone with Hokkaido? We don’t have any AC at home, neither at school (and the heating is broken, yay), nor most other places I know, and that’s perfectly fine. Places that do have AC (cinema, train, shopping mall..) are ususally extremely undercooled. Like last summer it was cooler in the train than infront of the frozen goods in the supermarket! And it
    wasn’t too hot outside, maybe 20°C/68°F I’d call that a waste of energy, provoking illnesses and generally uncomfortable ^^

    Comfort temperature is definetely an interesting topic. Same for food: Who has their soda without ice?

  • Tora.Silver

    *Sees Cool Biz image*
    Now I’m uncomfortable.

  • shiro

    If you’re using a kerosene heater – as she probably is, being Japanese, or at least was raised using one – then you absolutely have to “air out the house” for a few minutes or else you’re just poisoning yourself. That’s probably what she meant by bad kuuki;

  • shiro

    How on Earth did you get ‘Hawaiian shirt’ out of that picture? Or did you spend your first cool biz summer in the middle of an Okinawa travel campaign?

  • Meow

    Thats funny because a lot of people wear Aloha shirts to work, parties, weddings, and a lot of other formal occasions here in Hawai’i…

  • Hirohisa Okada

    i love cool biz too . when i visited in the company as a internship from Univ last summer , that time i asked my professor ‘ what kind of clothes should i wear there ?’ , he said that you need only a polo shirt with short sleeves , no tie no jacket ! ‘ . i though what a bizarre style !? i was wandering if i might be scolded by a president of company that morning i went there first day .
    however . i arrived there , all employees were no suit on the desk !! then i was really relieved that time :D it was my memorable memory on last summer as a internship student .

  • Gianmarco Russo

    I do the same thing for the same reasons your Japanese coworker told you…although were I live (Southern Italy) temperatures are not so freezy as in Eastern Japan or Hokkaido! D:

  • Gerran Coppin

    This was a really interesting article! The blog “This Japanese Life” posted a similar observation a few months ago, and I find the significance/definition of ‘comfort’ to really tell a lot about a culture!

  • Thomas Frank

    It was probably to save money, but the hostel I stayed at in Asakusa definitely didn’t go heavy on the A/C. I was pretty adaptable, but one of my friends just couldn’t stand the heat and had to go ask them to turn it on every night.

  • Anett Iwamoto

    I have come to believe that one reason because rooms are so cold in winter is “because rooms are of course cold in winter” which comes out of the “We have four seasons and are proud of them” feeling. And of course half a liter of water is running down your window every morning “because that is normal”, too. I’d rather say that it’s a matter of not being informed well about modern possibilities of insulation. Why should I pay twice the price for “Pair Glass” if a standard “One Glass” one is sufficient? Nobody bothers to explain the advantages of those. And of course you need to leave it open a bit so that the water can flow outside. That that also means cold wind in winter comes in or the cooled down air warms up again doesn’t matter. And even if you don’t want to build in a hot water based central heating as in other industrial countries, you could easily build in a opening in the wall where the kerosine gasses could leave the room and new oxygen could enter. Similar to old-fashioned ovens and their opening. But that is too expensive. And regarding the exchanging air, new slightly luxury houses or apartment houses have a build-in system to prevent too much humidity in the flat/house. But that is too expensive, too, and there is no law that forces house owners to remodel their buildings in that direction or even build new houses according to that standard. I was shocked to learn that double-glass windows would only be an extra to pay for option in many new “MANSHON”.

  • Dave

    Never, until the day I die, will I ever return to Japan in summertime! I wouldn’t care if you gave me an all expanses paid first class trip with dancing girls the whole way, and all the free sashimi I could eat; I will never return to Japan in Summer. Never.

  • Jo Somebody

    Yikes! Where did you go?! Tbh, the idea of more insects scares me more than the idea of mugginess.

  • Kerensa

    I don’t use a kerosene heater. If I did I would open the windows. I’m not that stupid lol.

  • Dawn

    Is it just me or are the boys in that ad すごくかっこい

  • Lauren Summers Feels

    it happened to me too XD

  • Lauren Summers Feels

    ほんとお!never?!!?!?! even with the girls!!!?!?!? and the sashimi! I am shocked! i’m also from Texas XD