Heating in schools: Furry underwear and dalek heaters

How has Japan adapted to its piping hot summer and finger-numbingly cold winter? I’m finding out that it’s not in the most high-tech ways! 

Four months ago, I first entered my school and a thermometer read 38’C. I would’ve died from heat exhaustion if it wasn’t for the air-con in the shokuin shitsu (teacher’s room). Now it’s reading a mere 10’C but feels a lot less. The 80% humidity here wraps itself around you like a damp blanket and you have to work hard to shake it off. I imagine this isn’t easy if you’re a junior high school student and have to sit at your desk all day. For me, I cowardly retreat to my desk in the heated shokuin shitsu whilst the students suffer the cold in the drafty corridors and chilly classrooms.

Let me set the scene. This is an average classroom. Behind the curtains are single-pained windows. On the other side are metal doors. There is no heating or cooling system in place, yet.


Yes, that’s a black board you see! And each student has a wooden desk and a chair with his or her name on it.  In contrast to this Victorian era set up, each room also has a magnetic whiteboard, a document camera, which is great for showing student’s work, and a normal overhead projector. In Echizen City a lot of money is channelled in to new equipment for the schools, but the blackboard remains an essential part of every lesson.

So, how do the students cope with the hot summers and freezing winters? 


In the summer the girls wear white, short- sleeved, sailor-style shirts and mid-length blue, pleated skirts. Boys have a white shirt and black trousers. During special times of the school year, students wear their PE kit that is a breathable sports t-shirt and purple shorts. Both are UNISEX and seem to be flattering to most of the students. Indoor white trainers are worn all the time and are changed for outdoor trainers when students play sport outside.

What is most amazing about JHS uniform is that the students don’t alter them in any way! The dress code is so strict that a girl couldn’t get away with rolling her skirt up one inch! And it’s not just the uniforms, no make-up is allowed, girls’ hair has to be tied up if it is pass shoulder length and bunches must be tied below the ear line! This changes considerable in high schools, where ties loosely hang around boys’ necks, girls’ hair is long and untied and some girls roll their skirts to a dangerously short length! The uniform police, aka the strict teachers, must retire in the transition between the two schools!

During the winter the girls are wear navy, long-sleeved sailor uniforms and boys wear a black, military style uniform.  In school, no other outer clothing is allowed to keep them warm. This is especially difficult for the girls who must wear skirts that offers little protection from the cold. Yet now the students are wearing long socks, cardigans under their uniforms and wear coats to school. Tights are permitted, but only on the coldest days. So one unusual piece of clothing I’ve seen in shops are these, ”pokapoka pantsu” and the girls at my school tell me they love them!

Fluffy pants!


Summer is dealt with quite simply: open the windows and hope the draft blows the stifling heat away. But in the winter it gets so cold the students’ fingers would freeze without any sort of heating. So one chilly November afternoon, lessons were suspended and I was told that heating was going to be installed. Little did I imagine that it would be kerosene stoves and even more surprising, that the students were going to construct them!

At first sight the stoves look like a dalek from Doctor Who. What’s more, they need a metal chimney constructed across the classroom to take away potentially harmful fumes, such as carbon monoxide. The chimneys are made from about 30 parts which need to be slotted together, hoisted to the top of the classroom and attached there with thin pieces of wire to screws in the ceiling. I watched as this was done in less than an hour by a class of 30 twelve year olds and their home room teacher. I was as much use as a glass hammer so I just watched and took photos.


The chimney being constructed

Everyone helped out and held it in place for about 30 minutes!

Everyone helped out and held it in place for about 30 minutes!


Attaching it to the ceiling with dubiously thin pieces of wire!

So within an hour all the classroom in the school had a heater ready to go! This cooperation of the students and teachers was amazing to watch and next year I’ll have to be of more help!

Why do the schools still use kerosene heaters? Well the school is about sixty years old and was built to last but not built to keep the heat in. Therefore there is zero insulation and no central heating. Installing air-con units would be expensive and running anything from electricity is pricey on such a large scale. Kerosene, on the other hand, is cheap, widely used and gives out the best heat, like I’ve found…

An unpredicted problem

The kerosene heaters are switched on whenever there is a frosty day and it turns out I personally have a problem with them. Heaven forbid, they’re too hot! As an ALT I usually stand right next to the heater at the front of the classroom so I often overheat due to the multiple winter layers I wear and come out of the lessons rosy cheeked! The kids in the front row suffer too and are practically getting their leg hairs singed from the blazing heat! But the poor kids in the back rows wouldn’t know if the stove is on or not!

So Japan, you can invent 8K TV and buildings which withstand earthquakes but your heating system is lacking. How about that thing called insulation and maybe even central heating?