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

Living an electrical life: contested normality

Gaps between ideal visions of normal electrical life and the domestic capacity to live it created tensions that spilled over into different forms of protest and resistance. The case of DEPA in Japan offers an interesting insight into how promoters’ visions of an electrified life were mismatched with the financial and technical capacities of households resulting in frustration. The DEPA’s 1929 publication Sumiyoi Ie (‘a comfortable house’) set out standard specifications for the ideal number of lamps, switches and sockets in an electrified house (Katei Denki Fukyū Kai, 1929). Following these specifications, fifteen model houses – intended as electric homes for ‘the masses’ – were built in Tokyo, which were equipped with 9–20 lamps, 9–20 wall switches and 5–10 wall outlets. These houses were filled with what the DEPA’s promoters thought essential for modern living – including electric lamps, heaters, cookers, irons, vacuum cleaners, electric fans and the refrigerator (see Figure 3). The lifestyles being promoted by DEPA, which were well beyond the financial means of average income consumers, were also out of sync with the technical capacities of the targeted households. Many of the electricity users who participated in an essay competition held by the Matsushita Electric Company in 1933 thought the problem had less to do with their financial capability than with the prevalent home wiring arrangements. An essay written by a consumer in Yamaguchi, among 110 papers making a similar point, complained that ‘when one wants to use a radio, an iron and a cooker, one has to ask the company to connect three supply cables… With such a supply arrangement, how can electrical appliances become popular?’ (Matsushita Denki Seisakusho, 1933).

Figure 2

Japanese illustration depicting an example of electrical appliance positioning within a living room

A plan of an electrified kitchen in Katei Denki Fukyu Kai, Sumiyoi Ie (Tokyo: Katei Denki Fukyu Kai, 1929), p 8. Courtesy of the National Diet Library, Japan

There were also stark differences between providers and users in terms of understanding what constituted a normal electrical service and reasonable cost. Consumers were especially vocal about tariff differentiation. In 1927, the Toyama Electric Power Company’s tariff increase provoked fierce consumer protests, originating in the town of Namegawa. Protesters removed utility-owned electric bulbs from their houses and dumped them at the company’s office, as a daring statement against pricing policies (Namegawa Shi, 1985). In this ‘electric lamp abolishment’ movement, towns and villages stopped using electric lamps and reverted to candles and oil lamps. The Namegawa protest incited around four hundred similar protests across the country and resulted in a reduction in electricity rates. The tariff issue was particularly contentious in Toyama, as the region had a number of hydropower plants that were connected to long-distance transmission lines. The Namegawa protesters asked why they, though living close to the source of electricity generation, were paying 0.70 yen per month for a 16-candlepower lamp when consumers in Tokyo, far away from the source of electricity, were paying only 0.60 yen per month (Abe, 1928).

Differential electricity rates and tariff policies across Canadian provinces were also an on-going cause of strife between utilities, municipalities and customers, with pricing policies considered incomprehensible to the average citizen (Sandwell, 2015). Ontario hydro customers could not initially fathom why they had to use more energy to reduce the unit cost or why they had to pay a fixed amount for system overheads as well as a variable fee for the actual amount of electricity they used (Fleming, 1992; Sandwell, 2015). Rate disputes also surfaced in political campaigns against privately controlled utilities. In Victoria, British Columbia, citizens were compelled to fight for public ownership and fairer tariffs in the 1930s by municipalities that urged voters to follow the example of Ontario and embrace public power. This dispute was also reflected in consumer complaint letters to the BCER, as in the case of a Victoria resident who could not comprehend why his friend, living only a short distance away in Vancouver, received such a low rate given similar electrical equipment and usage: ‘I notice my bill last month was $11.40, and he apparently got off with $5.50’ (Forman, 1930). Rate disputes highlighted spatial variability in what having an electrical connection meant at a cross-regional and local scale.

The complexity of electricity pricing policies not only perplexed Canadian consumers, it also served indirectly to curb electrical expansion. In rural areas, due to the expense of reading meters, many utilities initially relied on a flat rate for a minimum amount of power and most customers refused to exceed this minimum level (Sandwell, 2015). Elsewhere consumers questioned the logic of connection and pricing policies. In a letter to The Globe newspaper in 1935, a customer living in suburban Toronto puzzled over why his family had to pay more in their municipality than in the city itself, and questioned the justice of an additional service charge for having a third wire service attached to the house. This, he suggested, served to discourage consumption as his wife had been compelled to cut down on her hydropower use rather than pay the extra charge for additional capacity. Now she did most of her cooking on a coal range, especially in the winter months, and to further curtail hydro use had installed a small coal heater to warm water as well as changing all the lights to 25-watt bulbs (The Globe, 1935).

Figure 3

Japanese colour advertisement showing a young giel plugging a wireless into a light socket electricity source

Two-way socket appearing in an advertisement of an electric kotatsu, Matsushita Electric Company, 1928. Courtesy of the Kounosuke Matsushita Museum

Another form of protest was a growing rate of illicit electricity use in Japan. This problem was not a response to a lack of electricity access, given that most households were wired by the 1930s. It emerged instead from a mismatch between consumers’ desire to live in a certain way – partly inspired by successful advertising campaigns that profiled all the latest appliances – and the material limits that people faced in limited household infrastructure. In the 1930s, the price of small electrical appliances like electric irons and electric fans fell steadily due to the growth of the manufacturing industry, while domestic wiring in most houses remained as rudimentary as a few ceiling lamp sockets. A device that enabled users to get around the lack of service outlets was the two-way socket, which allowed users to connect additional appliances to ceiling sockets without losing electric light (see Figure 4). Annually, two to three million sockets were sold to supplement inadequate wiring as consumer desire for appliances increased. Most utility companies prohibited the use of such devices as it resulted in greater electricity consumption while customers were still charged for only one lamp or socket. Similarly, customers ignored restrictions on the type of lamps they were allowed to use by plugging in electric bulbs brighter than those provided by the company to compensate for low supply voltage. The utilities responded to illicit use by declaring that the breach of contract terms amounted to electricity theft. The supply companies tried to tighten their grip on consumers’ behaviour by conducting regular patrols, which usually involved entering homes to inspect wiring and appliances (Hourai, 1927). A moral argument was made linking illicit electricity use to the allegedly uncivilised state of Japanese consumers. The editor of Denki Keizai Jiron magazine argued that the process of electrification ought to be accompanied by a campaign to implant the idea in the public mind that illicit use was a sinful crime (Mugai, 1933).

Illicit use appears to have been a relatively minor problem in Canada in this period compared to Japan and to utilities in Britain and the United States that reportedly faced problems of widespread electricity theft (Yopp, 1935). However, concerns about problematic customer practices were raised in earlier decades. Fleming (1992) describes a growing problem in Ontario during 1916 where farmers would sign up for the minimum flat rate, allowing usage within a pre-arranged limit, but then add more equipment and load until transformers burnt out. These overloads were not only an expensive annoyance for the Ontario HEPC, they were seen as a destructive practice that contravened the non-formalised code of honour between public providers and users (Fleming, 1992). The utility’s solution was to more closely regulate rural users and to impose a differential rate system for varying classes of power users; lighting, light power and heavy power. The imposition of such a system may have helped to realign customer practices to the capacities of the grid but rural users continued to debate the relative merits of fixed and flexible rates and how different user classes were to be fairly charged for many years (The Globe, 1926; The Globe and Mail, 1942).

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/180904/004