On Aug. 1, the Tokyo prefectural government started a program that provides up to ¥40,000 to certain households so that they can buy air conditioners and have them installed. Considering how much newsprint, cyberspace and air time has been dedicated this summer to the subject of saving energy and the amount of electricity an air conditioner uses, it seems a rather strange program. According to the Tokyo Shimbun, only about 700 households are estimated to qualify for the grant. To receive the money the household must already be receiving welfare from the central government and have at least one member over 65 years of age whose physician recommends an air conditioner to prevent heat stroke.
It’s the first time any government, local or otherwise, has earmarked specific funds so that private individuals can buy air conditioners. Until, say, 25 years ago in Japan, air conditioners were considered luxuries, which meant that welfare recipients couldn’t even own one if they wanted to continue receiving benefits. In Japan, traditionally, owning certain household appliances, or even a car, meant that automatically you couldn’t receive welfare, regardless of your income because such items indicated you had spent the money you received on something you didn’t need to survive, even if, in fact, you had received said item before going on welfare. That’s the reasoning behind welfare: Receiving the minimum to get by. Even TVs were forbidden at one time, and it was common for welfare recipients to hide them when the social worker (minseiin) came to check up on them. Obviously, air conditioners are now considered necessities.