Automatic dishwashers: the square peg in the round hole of Japanese kitchens

February 10th, 2012 by Philip Brasor & Masako Tsubuku

Redundant? Dish dryers that also disinfect

A Japanese non-profit organization called the Housekeeping Association recently conducted a survey of “married women” about the appliances they have purchased over the years. Among the association’s findings was a ranking of appliances in terms of effective usage. They asked the 3,900 respondents to rate appliances in terms of what they expected of them and then whether or not those expectations were met. The greatest degree of “disappointment” was registered for automatic dishwashers, followed by clothes dryers and bread-making machines.

One of the reasons dishwashing machines fared poorly in the survey is that dishwashing itself was deemed by 78.8 percent of the respondents to be one of the “most important housekeeping chores.” In addition, 75.4 percent of the women who owned dishwashers said they found it “stressful” when a load of dishes did not seem to be clean after using the appliance. Consequently, they would have to clean each dish, glass or piece of flatware by hand, rendering the appliance virtually useless. And since as an appliance the dishwasher also used lots of energy and water, it became even more of a wasteful piece of equipment. After all, the reason these women bought the dishwasher was to save time.

According to the Asahi Shimbun, only 26.9 percent of Japanese households have dishwashers, as opposed to about 62 percent of American households (as of 2007). The reason is mainly space, which Japanese kitchens have less of, but also the running expense, since, as implied by the responses to the above-mentioned survey, they require a lot of energy and water. This is also one of the reasons clothes dryers are not so common in Japanese homes — the electricity costs — but, of course, the main reason clothes dryers aren’t popular is that Japanese prefer hang drying clothes, as evidenced by the fact that almost every residence in Japan incorporates some sort of facility for a drying pole, such as a veranda. The belief is that sun drying disinfects clothing and heat drying does not.

Similarly, many Japanese belief that it is healthier to allow dishes to dry naturally, which is why in addition to table-top dishwashers there are also table-top dish-dryers, an appliance that Americans, at least, would probably find redundant. Many Japanese homemakers do not like to towel dry dishes, believing it to be unsanitary, so they either leave them out to dry naturally, or they dry them in dish-dryers.

Nevertheless, appliance makers, always on the lookout for something new to market, have made a concerted effort to sell electric dishwashers to the Japanese. In America, new homes come with dishwashers, usually as a standard built-in feature. Very few in Japan do, and in almost all cases they are an expensive option. Most dishwasher owners have the table-top type, which takes up a lot of room and requires unsightly hoses and electrical cables, which most likely compound the feeling of dissatisfaction.

Another aspect of Japanese living that makes dishwashers expensive is that, unlike in the U.S. where users do not run the dishwasher until it is full, Japanese homemakers prefer to clean up after every meal. That means the dishwasher could be used as much as twice or even three times a day.


16 Responses

  1. Interesting that dishwashers are considered less energy/water efficient than hand washing dishes, when in actuality, dishwashers actually use less water than hand washing and are actually quite energy efficient nowadays.

    Anyway, very interesting post – thanks for sharing!

  2. I think it’s people who don’t have dishwashers who think they’re inefficient, since salespeople will make sure to tell you they aren’t. In any case, the women surveyed probably felt that way because many of them ended up hand washing their dishes anyway.

  3. I’m also wondering then if these dishwashers are also the Japanese types typically found in electronics stores here, versus say, U.S. models…

  4. We can’t say for sure, but built-in dishwashers, the kind that Americans are familiar with, tend to be sold as options in new homes, and that’s only been in recent years, so we assume the dishwashers that were talked about in the survey are the counter-top types.

  5. I feel the same way as Japanese people, I don’t really approve of toweling dishes dry and prefer to let them dry naturally and I can’t bring myself to trust dishwashers completely because I’m always suspicious they haven’t completely cleaned the dishes.

  6. Of course, if they had dish washers and clothes driers that had any volume, and actually worked well (like N.American ones) they may change their tune. Japanese consumer products come in two varieties:
    – also sold abroad, and of good quality
    – not sold abroad, and useless gimcrack

  7. This must sound extremely unpalatable to you decadent Merikens, but I have never owned, or lived in a home with, a dishwasher or clothes dryer. When I last lived in my native New Zealand they were not popular household appliances, and when I started my life in Japan they were simply unheard of. So I simply never got into the habit of using them, and instead continued doing everything the hard way.

    My washing machine resides on my veranda, and I hang the clothes out on three poles every morning before work, and bring them in every evening after I get home. It sounds like a lot of work, and I don’t enjoy it very much (especially in the rainy season) but there is something comforting about the ritual.

    Furthermore, my kitchen has no hot water, meaning that I wash my dishes by hand using only cold water, dishwashing liquid and lots of elbow grease. (It’s awful in the winter, my fingers freeze!) I know it all sounds terribly dangerous and unhygienic but to the best of my knowledge I haven’t dropped dead yet.

    My bathroom doesn’t have running hot water, and I use a special gas boiler to heat the water for my bath. The ignition crank makes a very distinctive sound, you can hear it every evening from various households in this neighbourhood.

    My electricity bills (for a 55 square-metre apartment with two human inhabitants) come to roughly 3000 yen a month. My gas bills are even lower.

  8. When I visit my family in the U.S. I can’t understand what good dishwashers are. They don’t really work that well, contrary to what Ἀντισθένης says. They bake in crud on the dishes that has to be removed with a file and chisel. To avoid that you have to “pre-wash” the dishes. Why not just finish them off by hand and be done with it? Of course you can say that if the dishes are getting clean, then you’re loading the dishwasher wrong, sort of like Steve Jobs’ “You’re holding it wrong” comment. Hey, this shouldn’t be rocket science.

    Another problem is that you constantly forget whether the dishwasher has washed or unwashed dishes, or worse, some combination of the two because someone else didn’t know either and put dirty dishes in a dishwasher full of clean dishes. Why is it so hard to distinguish? The “pre-washing” of the major crud.

    Finally, the damn things make a huge racket when they operate. In a new-style U.S. house without a separate kitchen, but rather with a “great room with adjacent kitchen and dining, you can’t escape the racket.

  9. While I find a clothes dryer to be more of a luxury than a necessity (and it would be nice to have one), our dishwasher has been a god-send. Granted, we do not have one made by a Japanese manufacturer; rather, ours is made in Germany but is sold here in Japan. I hadn’t had one anywhere I had lived until we got this one, and now I wonder how I ever got by without one. The dishes come out considerably cleaner than can possibly done washing by hand (the water temperature is much higher), and much, much less water is used. In fact, our water bill has DECREASED about 25% with a dishwasher. As for the noise factor, we don’t find it to be very loud. We can carry on a conversation at regular volume while it is running. It is usually run at night and cannot be heard outside of the kitchen area. I will say we didn’t like any of the ones made available by Japanese manufacturers, mainly because they are too small to accomodate the size of our kitchenware and amout of dishes we have with a family of seven. Finally, the appliance wasn’t cheap, but going on four years now, it was one of the best purchases we made when our kitchen was being built, and it was worth every yen!

  10. The lack of space is the most sound reason for the relative lack of dishwashers and clothes dryers. The large number of dishes used for Japanese meals does beg for a machine, as does its greater hot and cold water efficiency. And clothes driers? Well, there are two to four months of the year when it is too humid for clothing to dry well enough to avoid mildew scents, and surely a dryer is a better solution than mildew, or having to use the ‘doraia’ function on your a/c for an entire room.

  11. I never had a dishwasher in the US. I thought about buying one in Japan, but when I found out you had to prewash the dishes, I wondered what the point was. So I never bought one. Regarding clothes dryers, I think it’s a necessity. With all the rain and the humidity in this country, how can you dry your clothes without one? It takes forever to dry, and I don’t like hanging clothes in our already-tiny apartment. Btw, this has been a recent topic in our household.

  12. Don’t forget that line-dried clothing often needs to be ironed too, so it could be a false economy in the long run (when you factor in the costs of using the iron and spray starch, etc). So-called “eco” washer/driers are expensive, but seem to be incredibly cheap to run – some cost only about 20 yen per load! I wish I had one. The only thing I really dislike about all these labour-saving devices is that they run on …. electricity. I’d rather not get too reliant on them for that very reason. Elbow power is free!

  13. On the note of washers/dryers, my former roommate, back in 2009, bought this wonderful single-unit washer/dryer. I neglected to ask how much it cost, thinking it’d be rude, but I’m sure it was rather expensive. At any rate, it was one unit that functioned as both a front-loading washing machine and a tumble dryer. I was blown away! Not only was it the coolest space-saving thing I’d ever seen, the dryer was the best I’d used in the entire time I’d lived in Japan! It actually *dried* my clothes, and not only that, they came out toasty and fluffy soft. For the most part I didn’t use the dryer, anyway (I air dry many of my clothes due to delicate nature and to improve longevity) but on the occasions I was in a rush and forgot to do laundry in a timely manner, it was nice to know I could pop in a load for 20 minutes and have it come out bone dry (unlike what I was used to at the laundromat, wasting 500y on 50 minutes in the dryer to have my clothes soggy, anyway).

    The thing I do not understand, though, is how, given that Japanese are so concerned with hygiene, NONE of the washing machines anywhere have hot water cycles. It was the one thing I couldn’t get used to – I typically use cold water to wash regular clothes, warm for sport clothes, but underwear, I have been raised, ALWAYS gets washed in hot water. I would end up washing my underwear in two, sometimes three back-to-back cycles just because cold water didn’t feel clean, and even then I wasn’t comfortable with it. My washer at home even has a super hot (like 80 degrees) “sanitary” cycle, rarely used but still comforting to have.

  14. The hot water issue in Japan has a number of explanations. One that is often mentioned is the habit of using hot water from the bath for washing clothes. Another is the simple fact that until recently there was no way to easily connect a washing machine to the water heater in a Japanese residence. In America, at least, homes that were built in the last fifty years or so had facilities for connecting hot water directly to washing machines. In all of the places we’ve lived in Japan, only one had a faucet for the washer that could supply hot water. Some washers heat the water as it enters the machine, but in any case it’s only for washing. The rinse cycle is invariably cold.

  15. This is hilarious to me as an American. All my life (born in ’75), we’ve had dishwashers, washing machines, and dryers. Sometimes you may get a crummy dish washer in the US, but most of the time it’s good enough, and if your dishes are not really clean, you just try a stronger cycle or different detergent.

    I don’t know how people can put up with not having these tools, but I guess they just don’t know any better. Someone should let it be known — you don’t have to hang-dry your clothes or hand-wash your dishes. Machines can do a good job and take it off your hands. I even have a robotic vacuum now, and it works great.

  16. As first stage on sale in our estate, our house had quite a few extras to entice buyers – and a dishwasher was one of them! Foreign guests are in awe of how small it is (maybe 1/2 the size of a US size one), but it is built in under the counter and works like a dream. It has pre-wash, regular, heavy, wash only, and dry only cycles. My friend’s apartment came with a similar style but hers pulls out like a drawer, rather then the traditional flip down door.
    I use it all the time, depending on how many meals we have at home, sometimes twice a day. But it is smaller and does not use as much water as a US-size one.
    My Japanese husband does not use it very often – mostly as he gets frustrated trying to load it. But my in-laws drove me crazy hand washing dishes and then loading into the dishwasher for dry-only cycle. Like, really? If you are going to spend all that effort to load it, let it pre-wash, wash and dry them. LOL
    Also, re the comment on not having hot water for clothes washing, our newish (6 yrs) old washer-dryer in one has a built in water heater and will wash clothing on cold, 30c, 40c or 60c cycles. Love it!
    And disappointment with a breadmaker? Are they nuts? Any appliance (dishwasher, washer-dryer, breadmaker) that lets me start just before bed and wake up to my chores being done can never be a disappointment! And yes, I have a Roomba too – two actually!


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