Are Japanese people impervious to cold?

Winter in Japan seems to provide me with endless inspiration for this blog. One of the things that keeps amazing me is how lightly some Japanese people dress, despite a freezing cold outside. It is not uncommon to see people walking around without a coat, without gloves or in open shoes without socks while it is near freezing outside.

In January we visited Hakone. We took a cable car to the top of a mountain, where it was freezing cold. As soon as we left the relative comfort of the cable car, we had to brace ourselves against gusts of icy wind that chilled us to the bone. Despite having donned up in my full winter armour, I still felt like my face was freezing off.

view of mount fuji from hakone

View of Mount Fuji from Hakone - too bad this photograph can't capture how incredibly cold it was

winter armour

My winter armour

It was so cold that even dogs were dressed in warm coats, as you can see in the picture below. But if you glance to the girl in the right of the picture, you might notice that she isn’t wearing a coat, just a sweater. How she manages to brace the cold for even five minutes in that attire is beyond me.

dog in a coat

The dog seems to be dressed warmer than the girl

She was hardly an exception, as the pictures below illustrate:

miniskirt in freezing weather

A miniskirt in this weather. Are you kidding me?!

Bare legs, just looking at them makes me cold!

Bare legs, just looking at them makes me feel cold!

And last but not least, a scene from the train on one particularly cold February evening, showing two schoolgirls with bare legs and another girl dressed in an outfit that I myself might wear in May.

summer outfit in February

Summer outfit in February

Why don’t these people dress warmer? Is it that they just couldn’t be bothered to put on a coat? It can’t just be about being fashionable because salarymen in plain suits do it as well.  Are they just as cold as me but ignore it? Or are they actually built differently and therefore less susceptible to the cold?

I have seen some evidence to that last option in the onsen. Japanese ladies often enter both steaming hot or icy cold water without so much as flinching, while I am forced to retreat from the same water because it is physically hurting me. It could be I am just a big sissy, but consider this next fact: Japanese people (and I think Asian people in general) have a lower body temperature than Caucasians. While the average temperature for a Caucasian is around 37° C, for Japanese people it is around 36° C. I have heard stories about Caucasian kids being sent home from a Japanese kindergarten because the teacher thought they had a fever, while in fact they were perfectly healthy.

So many questions… Anyone care to share their experiences on the subject?

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29 thoughts on “Are Japanese people impervious to cold?

    • It seemed a bit rude to just walk up to a stranger and ask why they weren’t dressed warmer. In Japan, being polite is important and people don’t always respond well to direct questions, especially from strangers. Also, to ask the average Japanese person if they are less susceptible to temperature differeces than Westerners didn’t seem very useful, as most of them will have nothing to compare to.

  1. Interesting, but not what I’ve experienced in 6.5 years in Toyama city.
    My impression is that Japanese are comfortable between about 23-27 degrees. Anything below and they complain that it’s cold. Anything above and they complain that it’s hot. In winter girls do wear clothes that might not be the best for the cold temperatures, but dressing fashionably is more important than dressing sensibly I think.
    When it’s 18-23 degrees I could comfortably wear short sleeves and my students (aged 18-21) are often amazed by this. Whereas I’m frequently amazed by students wearing thick sweaters or hoodies when it’s 30 degrees!

    • I guess it also differs from person to person. If I look at Belgian people, I know people who, like you, are comfortable with short sleeves when it’s 18 degrees. But at that time I will already be wearing my more winter oriented clothing. And likewise in summer I wear long sleeved clothing up until about 26 degrees when many other people are already wearing their summer clothing.

      • I must be special. I wear shorts and a tshirt till it gets down to about 12-13C. THEN I put on pants and a light coat. I don’t even break out my heavy coat till it’s at least 0C. I’m Caucasian. I feel like I’m going to melt when it gets above 30C. Where I live it can get to 41C and when it does I’m amazed every time I survive it lol.

        • 41°C is a bit much, even for me 🙂 But wearing a T-shirt until 12°C is something I could never manage. I guess it depends a lot on the person. How wonderful it would be if we would all be free to move to the climate that suits our body the best. For me, definitely mediterranean.

  2. Yes, the body temperature theory is definitely flawed. I notice that Japanese people actually prefer the environment temperature a few degrees higher than westerners. For example, westerners might like the office around 24C, while most Japanese seem to prefer around 27C.

    For my job I visit a lot of foreign companies in Japan (I have lived in Japan over 10 years btw) and I still crack up when the foreign visitors complain how hot the office is…sometimes they are like “WTF?!?, Why is it so hot in here?!?”. Makes me chuckle a bit.

    Another thing I’ve noticed in the summer are gaijin sweating and fanning themselves in a hot train car (myself included) while they are wearing shorts and short sleeved shirts…then next to them are Japanese salarymen wearing suits who are totally comfortable.

    And yes, I have seen the mini-skirts during the winter…so commonplace don’t even notice it anymore.

    After living in Japan over 12 years my conclusion is that Japanese are able to tolerate a wider range of temperatures than Westerners and prefer a resting temperature around 27C. I hope this isn’t seen as racist, just an observation of an interesting (biological?) difference between Japanese and other ethnic groups.

    • I agree with your observation that Japanese people seem comfortable with a wider range of temperatures. I don’t think your comment is racist. There are just many differences between cultures all over the world and this is one of them. The only thing I am not sure about is if the temperature thing is because of biological differences or just because they are accustomed to it since childhood.

  3. When I was a kid, which unfortunately was a half century ago, we wore a uniform at school: a short wide cotton shirt, bare legs and socks,summer and winter the same thing. My two brothers, as all boys, got their first pair of trousers at the moment of their communion (12 years, catholic event). Although my legs were red in winter, when I walked 4 times a day the 1,5 km between home and school, I don’t remember to be ill often.

    • I remember that habit about boys only getting their first pair of long trousers at the age of 12.

      I can imagine having exposed legs might be ok. As for me, it’s especially the upper body that needs to be kept warm. That’s why I was so suprised about seeing people without coats.

  4. Interesting and true! If my temperature goes up to 37, that’s a high fever for me.

    I don’t know about the northern part of Japan but west of Tokyo on the Pacific Ocean side generally isn’t that cold even in the coldest weather. I mean it’s not like European or New York cold unless you go up the mountain like in Hakone.

    Wearing a proper overcoat is more of a western habit I think. Japanese school kids generally do not wear coats, definitely not in elementary school if you’re an average kid attending a public school, and when you get older in middle/high school you still might not which could be because of the uniforms they wear. I’ve seen students in uniform coats but I don’t think many schools offer this and I don’t think you can wear any coat you please if your school has a uniform and most Japanese schools do. That seems contradictory so I could be wrong. (My Japanese schooling ended when I was in 6th grade.)

    In Osaka, it’s typically too warm to be wearing an overcoat and gloves with cashmere lining which you would have no problem with in Tokyo.

    • Glad to know that the body temperature thing is in face true!

      Would you consider this winter an especially cold one? Because the temperatures we have had in Nagoya are pretty similar to a Belgian winter. The only difference is the amount of sunshine we get here in winter, which makes the temperatures around noon more bearable and helps to avoid the winter blues.

  5. Haruko san, this brings back memories. I assumed it was a fashion thing. Have you lived in Toyota shi through a summer yet? If so, you know how incredibly hot and humid it is, yet you may have seen people wearing jeans, long sleeves, and even sweaters in August. I couldn’t do it, I was still sweaty and uncomfortable wearing shorts and sleeveless shirts in Nagoya. 😀 The choice of dress for the season adds a whole new dimension to people-watching, most definitely. 🙂

    • We arrived last year in June and it was indeed smouldering hot and very humid outside. I also noticed the different summer wear. Although besides jeans they also wore a lot of pants just below the knee, which seemed a nice alternative to shorts. And lots of oversized things. I presumed at the time it was to hide any sweat stains.

  6. Great post! Thanks for sharing…it is very interesting especially since I wrap up with layers and layers here in the UK and sometimes have noticed tourists who don’t seem to feel the same cold air that I do. Now I know why. 🙂

    • Haha indeed. Although I am starting to think that maybe there are just two kinds of people: the layer people like you and me and the people who just don’t seem to feel the cold as much, like for example my husband.

  7. I was thinking quite the opposite. I thought a lot of japanese people dressed too warm. I think I would suffocate if I were wearing the same clothes. Haha:P I don’t know if it has any correlation but I am 17 and I’m fine with just leggings in the winter because my legs don’t get cold easily. Fun blog, I enjoy reading n_n

  8. I don’t understand why young girls (sometimes women in same age as me) can dress such lightly…I always wear socks double and drink only hot beverage.
    however,sometimes I see people who have frappeccino in starbucks and
    people wear Crocks(sandal) even in Winter…can’t believe this.
    Am I strange Japanese!?

    Speaking of body temperture,I was always wondering why Caucasians wear lightly in Summer,they always wear sleeveless shirts.But now,I found a reason.Their body temperture go up faster than us because of the basic temperture difference.
    It’s really interesting !

    • I think your winter habits and clothing are very sensible Yuko-chan 🙂

      So the body temperature fact is correct? For Japanese people it is indeed 36° C? Just like you, I was also wondering why Japanese people don’t sweat as much as Western people in the summer. Maybe the different body temperature is indeed the reason.

      • I guess body temperture fact is correct.
        My average body temperture is 36.5℃.
        As another person said,if my body temperture goes up to 37℃,
        I think I cought a cold.I care of my body to keep warm and sometimes have medicine.

        It’s really interesting to know the difference.
        I like to share opinions with people like this.
        I also think this is great post!

  9. I dunno if I buy the body temperature stuff, but I notice every day of winter that the girls in middle and high school wear their skirts the whole year through. >< I feel bad for them and the institutionalization of making one gender wear something that is obviously too cold for the season.

    I've seen elementary kids go out side in their tiny school uniforms too… and right before flu season…. does that make any sense..?? I dunno…

    That girl with the skirt in the photo above is also wearing some pretty wild heels for mountain climbing, too~~ ;_;

    • I did my best not to comment on the outfit of the girl with the skirt, other than that it’s too cold. There are several things I might remark about her outfit, but it is said that one cannot dispute about tastes and colours 🙂

      Maybe you could ask around at your school about the body temperature thing? I would love to know what Japanese people think about that.

      And yes, poor school girls. Although the uniform I see the boys wearing without a coat doesn’t look too warm either. I have likewise seen small children dressed very lightly in winter, in attire that would be deemed completely unsuitable for kids in Belgium (because the kids would catch a cold or even a pneumonia dressed so lightly).

  10. Yesterday on the tele I saw the iceman. A dutch man who has a lot of records while doing crazy things in the cold. Being in a big cup of ice for more than an hour, for instance. A marathon bare foot in just a short in the snow and ice, and so on. He was making a walk with a girl and learned her to get strenght out of the cold. An excersise was walking barefoot over the ice of the Naardermeer. Later on she even agreed to get into the water, after they had been cutting a hole in the ice, that was about 10 cm thick. He feels the cold as an energy that can give you strength, breathing constantly with the thinking that it is good for your body. Sorry for my english I donot find a dictionary here.

    • I guess anything in life can become an exercise and make you stronger if you approach it in the right way. But what the iceman does, doesn’t quite seem my cup of tea. Your story reminds me of pcitures I saw of beluga whales in icy sea water in Russia, and a woman swimming along side them. Normal people would have a cardiac arrest in that water but because this woman had had years of extensive yoga training, she was able to control her muscles and heart rate and thus endure the freezing water. Click here for an article about it

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