Go back to article: Making Material and Cultural Connections: the fluid meaning of ‘Living Electrically’ in Japan and Canada 1920–1960


Exploring Japanese and Canadian households’ reliance on electricity in a period of great change shows us that there has never been a single, universal idea of electrified life. What existed, and continues to exist today, are numerous ideas and experiences of electricity use that are allied to variable connection policies, domestic cultures and the material configuration of homes. In terms of the influence of politics on connection policies, Japan’s early electrification featured a business-led model with a high electrification rate and high level of intervention in the realm of the household but this was countered by stories of consumer resistance through illicit use. Canada’s connection processes have been convoluted due to provincially defined electrification pathways. Ontario’s public power model only gradually achieved its goal of power for all, while in British Columbia the integrated vision of urban and suburban expansion under a private monopolistic utility jarred with the divisive politics of service unevenness, as citizens and municipalities advocated for lower rates, better service and fairer contract terms. Relatively early rural electrification in Japan was assisted by communal initiatives but it left some ‘unlit villages’, where locals did not have sufficient power to negotiate with private providers. Rural electrification came late to the Canadian province of Alberta and the model of extension favoured collective action by rural households rather than state involvement. These different models of network extension were among many complex socio-technical elements that gave a distinctive flavour to the material evolution of rural and urban connections and contributed to the nuanced meaning of living electrically across space and time.

Household connections have been the focus of only a handful of historical studies and we contend that there is more to learn about the cultural fluidity of energy transitions through an empirical focus at the interface of domestic practices, material infrastructures and wider systems of energy provision. The selective insights from this article are to be taken both as a scoping exercise and as an invitation to further explore the intricacies of spatially divergent connection processes for what they might reveal about on-going energy modernisation processes. As in the past, electrification today is evolving through many intersecting hybrid arrangements – including uneven reliance on renewables, multiple public and private visions, convoluted service contracts, fitting and retrofitting of smarter equipment, mixes of centralised and distributed grids, and variable lifestyles and cultural dependencies. This transformation of electrified life needs to be seen as an open-ended, interactive and fluid process rather than a progression to a common end goal that is unlikely ever to be reached.


Authors' note: This paper draws on research findings from the ‘Material Cultures of Energy: Transitions, Disruption and Everyday Life in the Twentieth Century’ project (UK AHRC, AH/K006088/1).

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/180904/006