The Japanese engineer calling for a life without
electricityJapanese engineer and inventor Yasuyuki Fujimura
explains why he thinks the world should adopt a 'non-electric'
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
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
Atelier 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
This piece originally ran on Japan for Sustainability