Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Washing Machines

This morning while I was washing dishes, I heard my washing machine start to spin an imbalanced load of wet clothes and then stop because it detected the problem. It waited for the clothes to fall into a different weight balance then proceeded to spin out the water. When I heard it stop, I had the feeling it was "pondering" what to do then initiated a different course of action. Note that I usually do not anthropomorphize my appliances and was fully cognizant of how silly it was to do so in this case.

Our washing machine is about 14 years old and was one of the earlier "fuzzy logic" models. I'm not sure exactly how the fuzzy logic is applied in this case though I do know modern models guess the amount of water, detergent, etc. which are necessary based on the weight of the load. I also know it has a lot of buttons which allow you to choose the amount of water, wash time, etc. but it doesn't have any seriously fancy capabilities. That being said, it's still head and shoulders above our first washing machine in Japan in terms of its sophistication.

A modern semi-automatic washing machine. Note the two lids over the two chambers - one for washing and one for spinning out. If you want to know what our old machine looked like, think about this model's smaller, dirtier, clunkier grandpa.

When we first arrived, most folks in apartments were using what are called "semi-automatic washing machines". These are the types of machines with two chambers, one for washing and a separate one for spinning out clothes, and had to have water added manually. Doing a load of laundry in "the old days" of our life in Tokyo meant going through this multi-step process:
  • tossing in a small bunch of clothes (about 1/3 what you'd fit in a standard U.S. machine) into the first chamber
  • turning on the spigot and watching to see that it filled to the right point (if you walked away, you could bet on a flood)
  • twisting a timer knob which set how long it anemically swished the clothes around,
  • pushing a button to drain the water from the washing chamber and waiting a half hour for it to actually drain out
  • using the spigot again to add in rinse water
  • twisting the timer again so it could listlessly swish around the rinse water
  • draining again with a button push and another long wait
  • transferring a sopping wet wad of freezing cold clothes to the spin chamber (note: almost no washing machines use hot water in Japan)
  • twisting a timer knob to get the clothes to spin out
  • rebalancing the imbalanced wad
  • spinning again (and possibly rebalancing again and trying to spin again)
  • pulling the wad of intricately-tangled clothes from the spinner
  • detangling the wad
  • hanging them outside to dry
The main problem with this machine was that you had to keep an eye on it and be a part of every process. The secondary problem was that the spinning chamber was so small even a leprechaun wouldn't be able to fit his weekly laundry in it (and his tights would never, ever come untangled after a spin). The size of the machine seemed to assume one did a small load of laundry every day to keep on top of it. The other bad points included the fact that the washer didn't wash clothes especially well (nor rinse out detergent well) and the spinner really didn't get enough water out.

While this contraption may sound old-fashioned, the truth is that these things are still sold today. I'm not even talking about third-world countries or just in Japan where women still do many chores the labor-intensive way, but in many countries. To be fair, I've read that newer models include a drying function as part of the spinning portion of the current crop of semi-automatic washing machines. I'm also guessing they don't require all of the fiddling to add water and have sensors to add to the right water level without the user having to turn on a spigot or watch the levels. They also carry with them some green benefits like reducing water and power consumption.

The ecological issues regarding use of a semi-automatic washing machine are pretty compelling and, when our current machine goes off for its eternal rest, I'd have to at least consider the possibility of a semi-automatic for this reason alone. However, it's going to be really hard to shake the memory of that old machine and the vastly increased effort and attention it required to simply get something done which no one really enjoys doing.


Chris ( said...

Wow, that brings back some memories. I use to have a semi-automatic many years ago. You're right - I wonder why the spin drum only took half the volume of clothes that the wash drum did?

Many happy Sunday evenings were spent disentangling the mating octopuses/octopi that were my shirtsleeves. Now I have a fully automatic that has a higher IQ than I do, and I think secretly looks down on me...

tornados28 said...

I am surprised that Japanese hang dry their clothes rather then use the drier. I hate the stiff, crusty feeling of hang dried clothes.

CMUwriter said...

Wow, washing cloths in japan seems like it would be the biggest pain in the ass in the entire universe. Do they have regular style, coin-operated washing machines anywhere?

Kanagawa G said...


I used to have an old clunky "semi-automatic" washing machine at my old house in Hiroshima. The only problem was that ther were no hookups for the water or the drain. I had to put it next to the tub and fill it up either using a bucket or a hose. Laundry was something that I had to plan my week around because it took so much time to get done.

Shari said...

Chris: LOL! :-) I also wonder why the spinner had such a low volume relative to the washing chamber!

tornados28: I think that it's because the dryers take 4 hours to do their thing and apartments are so small most people don't have room for them anyway. A lot of apartments have their washing machines set up outside. I don't imagine you could safely do that with a dryer as it'd short out.

cmuwriter: Fortunately, automatic washers are not such a problem and I have one now (thought no dryer). There are coin-operated laundromats around but they are pretty expensive. When we had a semi-automatic, we used to avail ourselves of a local "coin laundry" because we'd get so sick of the machine. Eventually, we ditched it and bought a more expensive automatic.

kanagawag: I think our tub's drain would have serious problems with that sort of set-up. Your hassle factor definitely out-weighed mine!

Many thanks to all for taking the time to comment!

Helen said...

I was lucky when I first came over I had a lovely little automatic machine...still have it in fact, the company let me keep it when I left. But when I transferred up north for a year, I had one of those two tub things, and I did have to plan to give up my whole day for laundry. I'd forgotten just how long it took to do it.

I asked a student once about using laundromats, but he found the whole idea of washing his clothes in the same machine as other people to be disgusting. I pointed out that many Japanese people use onsens and bathe with other people but he didn't see the irony there!

Melanie Gray Augustin said...

I had one of those horrible little machines for years when I first lived here. I hated it, but was living in an apartment furnished by the company so couldn't do much about it.

When I moved back this time, I bought a whole lot of furniture and appliances from a previous teacher, sight unseen. It had a twin tub washing machine and was old and clunky and just awful. It lasted one whole day with me before I went out and bought a new automatic. It's small, but fuzzy logic, so I'm very happy with it.

Coming from Australia, I have no problem hanging clothes outside as that's what I always do anyway. Driers are only for when we have a week of rain, which sadly, nowadays is quite unusual.