TOKYO, JAPAN — I was jetlagged, but I'm pretty sure that really was Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz looking bewildered on a Japanese TV quiz show last night. A lack of fluency in Japanese was hindering their ability to communicate with the hosts, who were breaking into song occasionally.
I'm sure I'm not the first person to write, "Japan is a study in contrasts," but it's true — there are ancient Buddhist shrines next to modern skyscrapers, a traditional Japanese garden connected to my hotel tower, and people on the street wearing face masks to guard against spreading contagions. And they are very, very serious about going green.
I visited the CEATEC electronics show in Tokyo Tuesday, and was blown away by the variety. 3-D television is big this year, and every manufacturer had a giant, eye-popping display, and girls in miniskirts handing out glasses. But 3D isn't really my beat.
I was looking for shades of green, and Panasonic says it wants to be the number one green electronics company by 2018. To that end, the company was showcasing its home energy management system, which combines a solar panel with a lithium-ion battery system that can temporarily store the energy generated until the homeowner is ready to use it.
Another part of the system is the network-ready home appliances the company sells, such as an air conditioner that identifies how many people are in a room and what they're doing, then cools accordingly. There's also a refrigerator that figures out the family's usage pattern, then cuts cooling power at certain strategic times (such as late at night when the door isn't opened very often).
According to Nobuo Matsuo, manager of Panasonic's strategic planning office, the company is hoping to produce all the technology in the smart house by its 100th anniversary in 2018.
And then there's Panasonic's stationary home fuel cell, which supplies 60 percent of a family's power needs. Since last year, Panasonic has sold 2,000 of them, giving it 40 percent of the market. Home fuel cells have started to take off in Japan because the Ministry of Economic Trade and Industry subsidizes a third of their approximately $34,000 cost. A move by General Electric, working with Plug Power a few years ago, to sell stationary fuel cells fell apart because of high costs — and might have succeeded if it had been similarly subsidized.
Hideaki Tsuji, a councilor in Panasonic's planning group, predicts that the company's fuel-cell business will grow, but he also admits payback isn't rapid. With a savings in electricity and gas costs of about $500 annually, it may be 15 years before a fuel cell pays for itself.
All of this technology was incorporated into the "Eco Ideas" House, which is incorporated into the Panasonic Center in downtown Tokyo. The place is a bit like a stage set, with a brand-new plug-in hybrid Prius in the garage (connected to Panasonic's own electric vehicle charger) and the company's monitors ubiquitous in every room. On the roof of the zero-emission house is a five-kilowatt solar panel, which works with the five-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion storage battery and the fuel cell to negate all carbon emissions.
Panasonic makes all that stuff, and houses, too (plus high-performance green insulation for them), in Japan. Another thing the company makes is rapid 480-volt chargers (pictured at left), which take half an hour to do what takes a standard 220-volt system eight hours. Japan is the only country to develop a set of standards for rapid charging, and it already has a network of stations around Greater Tokyo.
The whole CEATEC show had a green theme — I'm sorry I missed out on a test ride in one of the Mitsubishi i-MiEV electric cars — but I was just as baffled as Tom and Cameron when it came to some of the displays. One company, Nichicon, appeared to make inverters for the Nissan Leaf and other electric vehicles, but the host of the booth and I looked hopelessly at each other, unable to communicate. Oh well, I went on the web and discovered that the company seeks "symbiosis with nature," and has a cute little animated planet named Kantaro.
There were a number of robots walking around on the show floor, as well as people dressed up in costumes out of manga comic books. And they were often pointing the way to some amazing technical wizardry, usually with a green theme. That's just the way it is in Japan, where the people who love consumer electronics are also trying to be good planetary citizens.