December 24, 2008

Turn the Light Out

(In front of an apartment building/office in Yoyogikoen.)

"For watering plants, for watering fields. We give these poly tanks to you."

Until about 15 years ago, kerosene (toyu) heaters were the norm in Japan. Winters in Tokyo are relatively mild, and a portable kerosene heater was often enough to keep a room warm. Where I grew up, nearly every house on the street had one. About once a week, a man in a small truck would drive slowly around the neighborhood, offering to replenish your kerosene supply. It would signal its presence with a female voice calling, "Toyu!" over and over. (This was actually a recording played in a loop.) The kerosene would invariably be filled into red or white polyethylene tanks, called "poly tanks."
Looking back, it's surprising that kerosene heaters endured as long as they did. With rising oil prices, growing eco-consciousness, and worries of fire safety, the switch to environmentally friendly, convenient heating systems feels almost like a natural progression. This phasing out means that all related paraphernalia is becoming unnecessary, hence this free giveaway of poly tanks. Filled to the brim with water, some poly tanks have a second life as weight anchors, emergency water supply, and, as suggested in the sign, giant watering cans.
As the heaters gradually become obsolete, it has drawn attention to the unexpected ways in which it became a part of Japanese culture. It's not just the aforementioned kerosene delivery truck, or the unmistakable red of the poly tanks. I have memories of carrying huge kerosene heaters up flights of stairs every winter in elementary school. A teacher would always mark the space around the heater with red tape, telling us to never cross the line, and for god's sake keep the windows open a bit. I feel as though yet another part of the Japan I grew up with is disappearing.
Come to think of it, I have no idea why a movie camera is lined up alongside the poly tanks.

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