KAMIITA, Japan -- When the Japanese government issued a national battle cry against soaring global energy prices this winter, no one heeded the call to arms more than this farming town in the misty mountains of western Japan.
To save on energy, local officials shut off the heating system in the town hall, leaving themselves and 100 workers no respite from near-freezing temperatures. On a recent frosty morning, rows of desks were brimming with employees bundled in coats and wool blankets while nursing thermoses of hot tea. To cut back on gasoline use, officials say, most of the town's 13,000 citizens are strictly obeying a nationwide call to turn off car engines while idling, particularly when stopped at traffic lights.
Takao Iwase, Kamiita's husky administrative director, joined other locals in switching off the heat at home, too -- leaving his family to quickly hustle from steaming nighttime baths to the warm comforters on their traditional futons. "We're saving [$100] a day at city hall by shutting off the heat," Iwase, wearing four layers of clothing and a winter coat inside his office, said proudly. "But we no longer see this as just an economic issue. Japan has no natural resources of its own, so saving energy has become our national duty."
As President Bush calls on Americans to break their addiction to oil and increase energy efficiency in the face of soaring prices, perhaps no people serve as better role models than the energy-miser Japanese.
With the world's second-largest economy and virtually no domestic sources of fossil fuel, Japan has had little choice but to turn energy efficiency into an art form, experts say. Japan has dramatically diversified its power sources over the years, becoming far less dependent on oil while cultivating a culture of conservation.
Kamiita's decision to turn off the heat, which brought it national media attention, came after a nationwide "warm biz" campaign led thousands of businesses and government offices to set their thermostats no higher than 68 degrees this winter while encouraging employees to wear sweaters and jackets at work. If it sounds like a gimmick, consider the figures from the similar "cool biz" campaign launched by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's cabinet last summer. Companies including Toyota, Hitachi, Isuzu and Sharp asked everyone from chairmen down to salarymen to strip off their much-loved ties and jackets as office air conditioners were set no cooler than 82.4 degrees. In metropolitan Tokyo alone, the campaign saved 70 million kilowatts of power from June through August -- enough to power a city of a quarter-million people for one month, according to Tokyo Electric Power Co.
Low-emission vehicles -- including increasingly popular hybrids like Toyota's Prius that have recently caught on in the United States -- already account for almost 11 million, or 21 percent, of all autos on Japanese roads. Across greater Tokyo, the world's largest metropolis with a population roughly as large as California's, "intelligent machines" from subway fare chargers to building escalators automatically turn off when not in use.
The government has set strict new energy-saving targets for 18 kinds of consumer and business electronics. Home and office air conditioners, for instance, must be redesigned to use 63 percent less power by 2008. The targets have sparked a gold rush among electronics makers, who are churning out record numbers of energy-saving -- but higher-priced -- consumer products.
Canon's $225 Pixus MP500 printer, which uses 60 percent less electricity than the company's other models, has become the number one seller here despite a variety of less costly options on the market. Matsushita, maker of the Panasonic and National brands, is selling a $600 energy-efficient ceiling lamp that proudly tells its users, "You are saving 10 percent on electricity," each time it's switched on. Last year, the company jumped into the housing subdivision business and is now building suburban "eco-homes" fully equipped with energy-saving gadgets and solar panels that can chop 65 percent off the average Japanese power bill of about $180 a month.
For some products, it can take years for savings on energy bills to offset the initial investment. Thus, experts say, the boom here is not likely to spread overseas until product prices come down. But with opinion polls showing that more than three-fourths of Japanese view energy conservation as a personal responsibility, many here are willing to shell out the cash.
That has contributed to the fact that Japan's energy consumption per person is now almost half that of the United States. Conservation fever swept the nation after the Kyoto Protocol, the 1997 treaty written in Japan that aims to reduce greenhouse gases. The United States has not ratified the treaty.
But Japan's transformation, experts note, dates from well before the Kyoto treaty -- and was rooted more in economics than environmentalism.
After the 1970s oil crisis, Japan "went into a panic. We have no oil of our own, and are completely dependent on imports," said Takako Nakamura, an official at the Global Environment Bureau of the Environment Ministry. "That weakness changed the way we looked at energy."
The country embarked on a major effort to wean itself off oil. Japan now imports 16 percent less oil than it did in 1973, although the economy has more than doubled. Billions of dollars were invested in converting oil-reliant electricity-generation systems into ones powered by natural gas, coal, nuclear energy or alternative fuels. Japan, for instance, now accounts for 48 percent of the globe's solar power generation -- compared with 15 percent in the United States.
At the same time, Japanese industries dramatically reduced oil consumption. Nippon Steel, the nation's largest steelmaker, has cut its dependency on oil by 85 percent since 1974; oil now accounts for only 10 percent of the fuel used to heat its factory furnaces.
Oil was replaced in part by coal, a cheaper and more abundant fossil fuel. Yet critics say reliance on coal or natural gas remains only a temporary solution, particularly as prices for those commodities have risen along with those for oil in recent years.
That has left Japanese companies to focus increasingly on efficiency and alternative energy. Five of Nippon Steel's 10 factories are now burning used tires and recyclable plastics -- such as discarded grocery bags and bottles -- in addition to coal. Spurred by the Kyoto Protocol, Japan's steel industry has made significant upgrades at its plants. Factories here can now produce one ton of steel using 20 percent less fuel than American steelmakers -- and 50 percent less than those in China, according to the Japan Steel Association.
Some industries have done even better. The paper industry is using waste-based or alternative energies for 38 percent of its power.
"We recognize that there is an important environmental issue at stake, but economically it has also worked out for us," said Hiroshi Nakashima, a general administration division manager at Nippon Steel. "Improved energy efficiency means we need to buy less fuel, and that saves money. Otherwise, we never would have done it."
But energy conservation can have its drawbacks. Back in the cold town hall in Kamiita, for instance, more and more workers are coming to the office wearing surgical masks and taking preventive medicines to ward off winter colds. But it is a fate they brought upon themselves -- a vast majority of the town's workers agreed in a survey that the heat should be switched off to save on energy.
"I think we're doing the right thing," said Masaki Iuchi, the 34-year-old town dogcatcher. "But it's not always comfortable."
Special correspondent Akiko Yamamoto in Kamiita and researcher Robert Thomason in Washington contributed to this report.
© 2006 The Washington Post Company