The Japanese engineer calling for a life without electricity

Japanese engineer and inventor Yasuyuki Fujimura 
explains why he thinks the world should adopt a 'non-electric' lifestyle

Yasuyuki Fujimura runs the Atelier Non-Electric 
company and advocates a lifestyle without electricity.

It is not all that long ago when we began using 
so many electrical appliances in everyday life. 
Japan's first "pulsator-type" washing machine, a 
prototype of current models, reached the market 
in 1953. Its popularity exploded as it was a 
convenient product that considerably reduced 
household work loads. Full-scale television 
broadcasting also started in 1953. This year set 
a precedent for the expanding use of various home 
appliances; so much so that it was later referred 
to as "year one of electrification".

Among these new appliances, the washing machine, 
refrigerator and black-and-white television set 
were called the "three sacred treasures" 
(referring to the Imperial regalia of Japan, the 
sword, mirror and jewel) that everyone longed for 
at that time. With incomes increasing as a result 
of rapid economic growth, consumer demand for 
these home appliances skyrocketed. By 1973 most 
households had purchased these 3 appliances.

Japan's electricity use steadily increased 
starting around this time. Even after the "oil 
shock" of 1973, electricity use increased about 
2.5 fold during the 35 years to 2008. The most 
substantial increases occurred in the 
consumer/household and transportation sectors. 
The increase in household use was partly due to 
changes in social structure, such as an 
increasing number of households, and also by 
changes in private lifestyles demanding more and 
more convenience and comfort. This was a time of 
"individual electrification" when each 
individual, rather than each household, came to 
own a set of electrical appliances.

Despite these social trends, Yasuyuki Fujimura, a 
doctor of engineering and an inventor, has been 
advocating a "non-electric" lifestyle that 
intentionally avoids the use of electricity. The 
phrase "non-electric" may sound a little 
unfamiliar, but it is different from 
"anti-electrification" that condemns electricity 
on principle. The phrase is meant to communicate 
the idea that it should be possible to live 
happily and richly while enjoying a moderate 
level of comfort and convenience without depending on electricity.

Fujimura has a Ph.D. in physics and originally 
got a job at a major equipment manufacturer. He 
was an elite engineer involved in the development 
of advanced technologies including plasma 
processing machines, cogeneration systems and gas 
heat pumps. His turning point was when his 
newborn son was diagnosed with allergic asthma. 
As he found out, at that time, in the 1980s, 
there was a surprising increase in the number of 
children with allergies. As he continued his 
research, he learned about environmental 
problems. He realized that the environment was 
deteriorating and harming the health of children 
as one of the down sides of rapid economic growth 
fuelled by the vigorous promotion of scientific 
and technological advancement and the pursuit of 
more and more convenience and comfort.

To create a new lifestyle, Fujimura started to 
work on the theme of "non-electric" in 2000. In 
2003, he established the 
Non-Electric and continues to develop many non-electric products.

Atelier Non-Electric is currently located at the 
foot of the Nasu Highlands, one of Japan's major 
resort areas in northern Tochigi Prefecture. 
Transportation is convenient  Nasu is about 150 
kilometers north of Tokyo and can be reached in 
90 minutes by the Tohoku Bullet Train.

There are many interesting home appliances that 
can be operated without electric power. One 
example is a non-electric refrigerator. It uses a 
phenomenon called radiational cooling together 
with the natural convection currents of water.

The approximately 1-hectare site is a kind of 
exhibition space that presents a "totally 
non-electric life." A non-electric house utilizes 
chaff, whose heat insulation performance is as 
good as glass wool, to the maximum. A 
non-electric composting toilet uses the power of 
microorganisms, which can decompose human waste 
into manure without an electric pump. The 
non-electric bath house uses a variety of 
energies such as solar power, firewood, or even 
garbage. These non-electric facilities are located around a pond.

Radiational cooling occurs when infrared 
radiation is emitted from an object's surface, 
causing its temperature to decrease. On a clear 
night, infrared rays are emitted from the ground 
into the atmosphere, cooling the air down. This 
is why the night is extremely cold in the desert. 
Most people have experienced water's natural 
convection currents when warm water rises while 
cold water sinks and pools at the lowest level.

The cooling unit of the refrigerator (capacity 
200 litres) is made of metal that has high 
thermal conductivity. A large volume of water 
(about 250 litres) is stored around this unit as 
a coolant. Radiator panels are placed on top so 
that the inner surface of the panel touches the 
coolant water. The heat of things stored in the 
cooling unit is conveyed to the surrounding water 
by the metal, and the heat goes up by natural 
convection. Thus it is conveyed to the radiator 
panel, and emitted through radiational cooling.

The system is most efficient on a clear night 
when there is less water vapor in the air. One 
clear night (and sometimes even one cloudy night) 
every three days can keep the temperature inside 
the refrigerator at around 7 to 8 degrees Celsius 
even on a mid-summer day. This innovative 
refrigerator belies our present-day common sense 
assumption that things cannot be refrigerated without electricity.

Some values take precedence over comfort, convenience and speed

Another popular Atelier product is a handy 
non-electric coffee roaster. The roaster is made 
of aluminium and shaped like a saucepan with a 
handle. Raw green coffee beans are put into the 
pan and roasted on a gas stove for three to five 
minutes by shaking the pan right and left. The 
beans are roasted evenly and as lightly or deeply as the consumer prefers.

The process of roasting raw coffee beans, cooling 
them down, grinding them in a coffee mill and 
pouring fresh brewed coffee into a cup takes 
about 25 minutes. Not many people want to take 
such a lot of time to make a cup of coffee in 
today's society, which requires speed everywhere 
and at all times. Fujimura did not actually 
expect much when he started to market the roaster.

This product, however, has sold some 8,500 units 
so far since it hit the market six years ago, 
even though it has not been widely advertised, 
except on the website of Atelier Non-Electric.

"I think it means there are more people enjoying 
the process," Fujimura says. "So far in Japan, 
people have sought comfort, convenience, and 
speed. But we can't always find happiness that 
way. I think the popularity of the roaster shows 
that some people have started thinking that speed 
is not always the best answer."

What kind of technology does not hamper sustainability?

Although it is a very simple tool, it took six 
months to develop the roaster. Coffee beans need 
to be roasted evenly. The material used needs 
good thermal conductivity so that it will not 
take too long to roast beans. Also, the shape had 
to be designed so that the raw coffee beans roll 
around easily in the container. Furthermore, the 
sound of the rolling beans needs to be pretty and 
pleasant. "To make a good non-electric roaster, I 
needed to use my ingenuity. Thus it took me half a year," Fujimura laughs.

"Actually, it takes more time to develop low-tech 
than it does to develop high-tech although we 
tend to think of advanced scientific technology 
when we say 'technology,' while we take low-tech 
lightly," says Fujimura. On this misplaced 
assumption, we tend to desire the products of 
excessively advanced science and technology that 
promote convenience and comfort, and thus we have 
placed a huge burden on the environment, leading 
to the energy crisis and other critical situations.

On the other hand, Fujimura does not deny 
technology itself. His problem is with technology 
that hampers sustainability. He sometimes holds 
workshops on making non-electric refrigerators 
that are geared to non-scientific mothers with 
small children. These non-electric fridges are so 
simple that such mothers can easily set them up. 
We can fix what we make ourselves when it is 
broken. As science and technology advance, we 
need to take back technologies that anybody can 
build, use and repair. Fujimura thinks that is 
one of the keys to stopping runaway science and technology.

The non-electric way of life that Fujimura 
suggests is not just a lifestyle without 
electricity. It also incorporates his philosophy 
on leading a happy and affluent life using 
appropriate technology without depending on energy and money.

Fujimura's dream is to make the Non-Electric 
Atelier a theme park that showcases the many 
options we have for fun, affluence, and 
happiness, particularly in the area of housing. 
He wants to show that non-electric houses  even 
when they are built by non-professionals  are 
lovely yet strong, good for the health while 
consuming little or no energy, and furthermore 
can be built practically for free. He would like 
to make the atelier a kind of housing exhibit, 
and believes it will encourage people in the 
younger generation who feel they can't afford to own a home.

Awareness of the energy crisis is growing 
worldwide and in Japan, where many people are 
re-thinking their energy supply after the Great 
East Japan Earthquake. In this context, on 
non-electric technology is becoming increasingly important.

piece originally ran on Japan for Sustainability

Ring the bells that still can ring,  Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack, a crack in everything, That's how the light gets in.
~ Leonard Cohen