Cold cash for hot stoves

November 19th, 2009 by Philip Brasor & Masako Tsubuku

You have to actually read the flyer to find the ¥50,000 offer

The ¥50,000 offer is mentioned in the yellow area below the line of heaters.

Always around this time of year, Panasonic runs TV ads for its discontinued line of large kerosene heaters, which don’t sell the product but rather encourages people who have them to bring them in to a Panasonic dealer. However, it wasn’t until I recently saw a flyer for this campaign in my morning paper that I discovered the company will actually pay you ¥50,000 for each heater you return.

The recall has been in effect since 2005, when a person died of carbon monoxide poisoning that was blamed on a National FF-model heater whose rubber exhaust hose had cracked. A month later, the manufacturer, which was still called Matsushita at that time, decided to stop production of all heaters, boilers, and other merchandise that burned oil. The FF series was produced from 1985 to 1992, and about 150,000 were sold. They were large, fixed units, which meant they had exhaust attachments that were supposed to be connected to the outside.

At first, Matsushita replaced the hoses with metal attachments, but about six months later another death was associated with an FF heater, and the company decided to recall all of the extant heaters after the government ordered the company to do something. According to a Japanese Wikipedia entry about Panasonic, the ¥50,000 cash offer has been in effect ever since.

Obviously, there are still FF-series heaters out there because, four years later, Panasonic is still running the recall campaign. Maybe the TV commercials, which feature a soothing female announcer’s voice, are too passive, as if it really wasn’t that urgent. I’m sure if they made the ¥50,000 part of the deal more apparent, they’d have people not only bringing their old heaters in, but raiding grandma’s house and the neighbor’s garage just to see if they have any in storage. (“Hey, I can get rid of that for you . . . “)

As heating systems become more sensible, fewer people use kerosene stoves, but once they were everywhere since they were the cheapest way to heat. Not coincidentally, they are also the most dangerous, especially in cramped old Japanese wooden homes with all their clutter. Japan has a lot of house fires and most of them are blamed on superannuated heating systems.

Certainly one of the more infuriating consumer rackets is the lack of central heating in residential housing. Basically, renters and even home owners are forced to buy stand-alone heaters that sit in the middle of their rooms taking up precious space. It always seemed like a conspiracy between developers and the gas utilities, from whom you usually have to buy these heating units. (The place I live in now has a hot water heating system with “unique” units manufactured by Tokyo Gas that, apparently, can’t be used anywhere but in this building.) Kerosene heaters are for buildings that don’t even have wall gas outlets — or for people who just can’t afford natural gas.

But what’s really surprising about kerosene stoves is that even they are considered modern appliances. Fifty years ago, most Japanese used charcoal hibachi or kotatsu to heat their rooms. At this rate central heating will be the norm sometime around 2050.


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