It’s the tail end of another long, hot summer in Tokyo, and salarymen across the city are eyeing their wardrobes with dread.
Every year from May to September, Japan’s famously conservative corporate workers and government employees ditch their stiff, dark suits for more casual attire. Out went the ties and starched shirts; there are short-sleeved polos and linen shirts, even the occasional Hawaiian. Then, as the calendar approaches October, formality returns, if not cooler temperatures.
The metamorphosis is part of a Japanese initiative known as “Cool Biz,” a glass-half-full depiction of what could easily be called the “Hot Office.” Starting May 1, workplaces set their thermostats at 28 degrees Celsius, or above 82 degrees Fahrenheit, to save energy, a sweaty measure in humid Tokyo.
As uncomfortable as they may be, Japan’s 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 . This August was Japan’s hottest on record, according to its meteorological agency, and daily highs in Tokyo remained above 32 degrees Celsius, or 90 degrees Fahrenheit, until late September.
Cool Biz is one of several simple, cost-effective 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 helped keep Japan’s per capita energy consumption at about half that of the United States, according to statistics from the Energy Institute, based in London.
Unlike Japanese workers, Americans became 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 off the thermostat and put on an extra layer. In the summer, many American offices are kept so cold that workers use space heaters and sweaters.
In Japan, Cool Biz has become popular among women, who tend to wear lighter clothes and often complain about the cold temperatures needed to make business suits comfortable for their male colleagues. Women are still underrepresented in decision-making roles in Japanese offices.
Today, more than 86 percent of workplaces participate in the Cool Biz program, according to a survey by the Environment Ministry. The success of the program was achieved without any rule-making or financial incentives, said Yusuke Inoue, the director of the ministry’s zero-carbon lifestyle promotion office.
Instead, the government encouraged politicians and business leaders to take off their jackets and ties, modeling behavior that quickly became ubiquitous. As people turn to lighter clothing, they no longer want the thermostat set so low, Mr. Inoue said.
Tatsuya Murase, 29, who works at a shipping company, said clients have come to expect less sartorial stuffiness.
“Now when I visit my clients, everyone seems very flexible and generous about the jacketless style,” says Mr. near Tokyo Station on Wednesday.
Keita Janaha, 34, the deputy branch manager of a local bank, said that while some of her male colleagues found the office too hot, it was acceptable to customers walking in from the sauna-like outdoor conditions.
Cool Biz dates back to the 1970s, when the Japanese followed some of the same advice that Americans shunned. However, 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 follow.
Yuriko Koike, current governor of Tokyo, introduced Cool Biz to government offices in 2005 during her time as environment minister. The initiative coincides with commitments made by Japan under the Kyoto Protocol, the 1997 international agreement to reduce greenhouse gases.
Learning from Mr. Ohira’s safari suit debacle, the government engaged a full-court press to convince office workers that it was OK to ditch their familiar coats and ties, even when meeting with clients.
The name of the program was chosen from 3,200 suggestions. A suitably amiable appearance was made by the colorful prime minister of the time, Junichiro Koizumi. Officials even persuaded Kenshi Hirokane, who wrote a popular comic book about salarymen, to put his characters on short sleeves.
While the initiative led to complaints from necktie manufacturers, who said business had fallen, it was a boon for retailers like Uniqlo, which has a line of cheap, casual clothing made from lightweight, sweat-wicking fabrics. cloth. Its polo shirts have become the de facto summer uniform for many office workers.
The program was so successful that it led to a wider “casualization” of summer style in Japan, said W. David Marx, the author of a cultural history of Japanese men’s wear, “Ametora: How Japan Saved American Style.”
“As long as it’s a method that saves the environment, on a personal level, I think everyone realizes that it’s too hot to wear suits,” he said.
Cool Biz’s wintertime counterpart, Warm Biz, which was introduced around the same time and encouraged workplaces to keep thermostats down, was less successful. Even its cartoon mascot — a lovable ninja — struggled to persuade office workers to don scarves and blankets and shiver at their desks.
As Cool Biz evolved, so did it. In 2011, after the Fukushima nuclear disaster prompted Japan to shut down reactors nationwide, the country again relaxed dress standards and called on its citizens to further reduce air-conditioning use in effort to avoid rolling blackouts.
The so-called Super Cool Biz helped save the electric grid, but may not have been great for productivity, according to research that found workers became less productive with each additional degree above 25 Celsius, or 77 Fahrenheit. More disturbing, one study has linked reduced home cooling to increased mortality in older people from heatstroke.
Last year, as Japan’s summers grew longer and hotter, the Environment Ministry lifted the official campaign period, encouraging workplaces to naturally transition from Cool Biz to Warm Biz according to the needs of temperature. However, most office workers don their casual attire in May and don’t switch back to more formal attire until the end of September. Several municipalities have said they will continue Cool Biz through October.
Not everyone has adjusted well to the change, said Yoshiyuki Morii, a fashion consultant who helps companies and their employees navigate the country’s changing dress codes.
In a country where uniforms used to be the norm even for desk jobs, many people aren’t sure what constitutes appropriate attire in the age of Cool Biz, he said. It’s a problem that could have serious implications: In 2019, South Korea’s trade officials suit the business accused their short-sleeved Japanese counterparts of irreverence.
Other countries have tried programs similar to Cool Biz with varying degrees of success. In Spain, the public has proven less willing to tolerate the heat, said Daniel Sánchez García, a professor at University Carlos III in Madrid who studies thermal comfort.
When the Spanish government introduced the program, “people said 27 degrees” — about 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 can cool off. and client after entering the building, and before holding meetings in the warmer. office spaces.
Rising temperatures have prompted many other adaptations. Personal air-conditioners attached to lanyards, hand-held electric fans and collars filled with cold packs are common accessories. Construction and delivery workers wear vests with two small electric fans sewn into them.
At EAT Grill and Bar, a Western-style cafe in central Tokyo, owner Michikazu Takahashi keeps the thermostat at 28 degrees.
Some customers feel it’s too hot, he said the other day as he rested on the hot grill. “They say it’s not normal,” said Mr. Takahashi, gesturing to his shop, where a small shiba inu named Momo was lying comfortably on the wooden floor.
He did not agree. Freezing temperatures on a hot summer day? “That’s not normal.”