It was the end of another long, hot summer in Tokyo, and salarymen across the city were looking at their closets in fear.
Every May to September, Japan’s notoriously conservative corporate and government workers put aside their stiff, dark suits and instead don more casual clothing. No more ties and starched shirts; There are short-sleeved polos and linen shirts, and occasionally even Hawaiian shirts. Then, as the calendar approaches October, formality returns, if not drastically cooler temperatures.
The metamorphosis is part of a Japanese initiative called “Cool Biz,” a half-full description of what might as well be called “Hot Office.” Starting May 1, workplaces will set their thermostats to 28 degrees Celsius, or above 82 degrees Fahrenheit, to save energy, a sweaty affair in humid Tokyo.
Although they may be unpleasant, Japanese offices offer a model for how countries around the world can reduce greenhouse gas emissions that have contributed to record-breaking heat waves and extreme weather events. According to the weather agency, this August was the hottest ever recorded in Japan, and daytime maximum temperatures in Tokyo remained above 32 degrees Celsius, or 90 degrees Fahrenheit, into the second half of September.
Cool Biz is one of several simple, low-cost energy-saving initiatives in Japan, a resource-poor country that relies on fuel imports for nearly 90 percent of its energy needs. The measures have contributed to Japan’s per capita energy consumption being about half that of the United States, according to statistics from the London-based Energy Institute.
Unlike Japanese workers, Americans were hostile to the idea of thermal discomfort. During the oil shock of the 1970s, President Jimmy Carter became a national punching bag for daring to ask people to turn down the thermostat and put on an extra layer. In the summer, many American offices are still so cold that workers resort to space heaters and sweaters.
In Japan, Cool Biz was particularly popular among women, who tended to wear lighter clothing and often complained about the cold temperatures required to make business suits comfortable for their male colleagues. Women are still significantly underrepresented in decision-making positions in Japanese offices.
According to a survey by the Ministry of the Environment, more than 86 percent of workplaces now participate in the Cool Biz program. The program’s success was achieved without any regulation or financial incentives, said Yusuke Inoue, director of the ministry’s Office for Promoting Carbon-Free Lifestyles.
Instead, the government encouraged politicians and business leaders to take off their jackets and ties, displaying behavior that quickly became ubiquitous. As people turned to lighter clothing, they no longer wanted to set the thermostat so low, Mr. Inoue said.
Tatsuya Murase, 29, who works for a shipping company, said customers had come to expect less stuffy clothing.
“When I visit my clients these days, everyone seems to be very flexible and generous when it comes to style without a jacket,” said Mr. Murase, wearing a blue-and-white checked button-down shirt as he saw off two colleagues nearby of Tokyo Station on Wednesday.
Keita Janaha, 34, the assistant branch manager of a local bank, said that while some of his male colleagues found the office too warm, it was acceptable for customers who came in due to the sauna-like conditions outside.
Cool Biz has its roots in the 1970s, when the Japanese followed some of the same advice that Americans shunned. Still, Prime Minister Masayoshi Ohira’s appearance in a short-sleeved suit jacket – the “energy-saving look,” as the newspapers called it – was deemed too unsightly to bear.
Yuriko Koike, current governor of Tokyo, introduced Cool Biz to government offices in 2005 during her time as environment minister. The initiative coincided with commitments Japan made under the Kyoto Protocol, the 1997 international agreement to reduce greenhouse gases.
Learning from Mr. Ohira’s safari suit debacle, the government undertook an extensive court press to convince office workers that it was OK to give up their usual coat and tie, even when meeting with clients.
The name of the program was chosen from 3,200 suggestions. Appropriately suave looks were modeled by then-colorful Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. Officials even persuaded Kenshi Hirokane, who wrote a popular comic about salarymen, to put his characters in short sleeves.
While the initiative led to complaints from tie makers saying business was down, it was a boon for retailers like Uniqlo, with its offering of inexpensive casual clothing made from lightweight, sweat-wicking fabrics. Polo shirts have become the de facto summer uniform for many office workers.
The program was so successful that it led to a broader “casualization” of summer style in Japan, said W. David Marx, author of the book “Ametora: How Japan Saved American Style” on the cultural history of Japanese men’s clothing.
“As much as it’s an environmentally friendly technique, I think on a personal level it’s clear to everyone that it’s too hot to wear suits,” he said.
Cool Biz’s winter counterpart, Warm Biz, launched at the same time and encouraging workplaces to keep thermostats low, was less successful. Even its cartoon mascot — an adorable ninja — had trouble convincing office workers to wrap themselves in scarves and blankets and shiver at their desks.
While Cool Biz has thrived, it has also evolved. In 2011, after the Fukushima nuclear disaster prompted Japan to shut down reactors nationwide, the country relaxed dress codes again and asked its citizens to further reduce air conditioning use to avoid repeated power outages.
The so-called “Super Cool Biz” helped save the grid, but may not have had a positive impact on productivity. This comes from research that found that for each additional degree above 25 degrees Celsius, workers became less productive. Even more worrying, a study linked the decline in home cooling to an increase in mortality among the elderly from heat stroke.
Last year, as summers grew longer and hotter in Japan, the Environment Ministry abolished the official campaign period and encouraged workplaces to naturally switch from “Cool Biz” to “Warm Biz” when temperatures warranted. Still, most office workers change into their casual clothes in May and don’t switch back to more formal clothes until late September. Some municipalities have announced that they will continue Cool Biz into October.
Not everyone has adapted well to the change, said Yoshiyuki Morii, a fashion consultant who helps companies and their employees navigate the country’s changing dress norms.
In a country where uniforms were once common even for desk jobs, many people are unsure about what constitutes appropriate attire in the cool-biz era, he said. It’s a problem that can have serious consequences: In 2019, South Korean trade officials in business attire accused their short-sleeved Japanese counterparts of disrespect.
Other countries have tried similar programs to Cool Biz with varying degrees of success. In Spain, the population is less willing to endure the heat, said Daniel Sánchez García, a professor at Carlos III University in Madrid who studies thermal comfort.
When the Spanish government introduced the program, “people said that 27 degrees” – almost 81 degrees Fahrenheit – “was too high,” he said.
Even in Japan, not all buildings are cooled equally: shops and restaurants tend to keep their thermostats low to ensure the comfort of their customers.
Masato Ikehata, a spokesman for Itochu, a trading company that relaxed its business suit policy in 2017, said the company has set up special “cold compartments” where employees and customers can stay warmer after entering the building and before holding meetings Area can cool office rooms.
Rising temperatures have led to a variety of other adaptations. Personal air conditioners hung on lanyards, handheld electric fans, and ice pack-filled collars are common accessories. Construction and delivery workers now wear vests with two small electric fans sewn into them.
At EAT Grill and Bar, a Western-style cafe in central Tokyo, the owner, Michikazu Takahashi, keeps the thermostat at 28 degrees.
Some customers find it too warm, he said recently as he took a break from the hot grill. “They say this isn’t normal,” Mr. Takahashi said, pointing to his shop, where a small Shiba Inu named Momo lay comfortably on the wooden floor.
He disagreed. Subzero temperatures on a hot summer day? “That’s what’s not normal.”
Source : www.nytimes.com