If Tokyo’s humid, sweltering weather doesn’t get you this year, some sartorial eyesores just might. Cool Biz is wading into even more relaxed and unfamiliar territory—with the adoption of the aloha shirt as the salaryman’s new uniform.
One of the pre-eminent signs of summer over the last few years (apart from rising hemlines and dripping sweat beads) has been the disappearance of dark suit jackets and ties from the public wardrobe of salaried employees—men or otherwise.
The introduction of Cool Biz by the Japanese Ministry of the Environment (MOE) in 2005 under then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi was aimed at reducing CO2 emissions and electricity consumption through reducing office air conditioning use. Government building thermostats were mandatorily set at a balmy 28 degrees, and all companies were encouraged to follow suit. Short-sleeve shirts and no ties became the rage, and haberdashers fell over themselves trying to create new, cooler business attire, clothes that would “breathe” and absorb moisture in office atmospheres that could easily become sweatshops.
While it was welcome, it did cause a little confusion. Many workers carried their suit jackets in hand with ties squirreled away in pockets—just in case. It might be considered impolite to attend meetings without the ubiquitous accoutrements, regardless of odor.
Cool Biz did work, with energy savings increasing (however minimally) year on year, though the big losers were the makers of those damnable neckties. Manufacturers and shops say that summer sales have dropped 36% since 2005. They’ve even asked the minister to end the campaign.
Far from acquiescing, the MOE has now gone even further—with Super Cool Biz and the aloha shirt. The old guard might see impending Armaggedon, but I am in full support. The effect of such low-tech measures will ultimately trump the effort — and energy consumption — of creating new fabrics. There is no confirmation, however, on whether the muumuu is to be endorsed for women (or men who just might feel more comfortable in one).
Mike Gervais, founder of Tokyo energy specialist Viterum Consulting, suggests businesses could install awnings outside windows to block the sun. Or, “try to use more natural light in the office rather than closing the blinds and turning on those ultra-bright fluorescents,” he suggests. Though how these two ideas go together is beyond me. Aloha shirts still seem the best option. And the laziest one, which suits me.
Unabashed, Mike continues. “Plants in the office would also provide a modicum of cooling through evaporation,” he adds, riffing on the “tropical” theme. I was impressed with the word “modicum.” His techno-babble went on, featuring terms such as “IR/UV blocking film” and “fiber optic window coatings.” He also mentioned “absorption chillers,” which made me dream of ice-cold beers with no condensation on the bottle. “They use solar heat to drive the refrigeration process,” he went on. “The hotter it is outside, the more the cooling system works—without adding to the heat island effect.” I was still thinking of beer.
I don’t hold with these fancy solutions, especially when there’s one as groovy as Hawaiian shirts. In fact, the venerable aloha shirt even has tenuous roots in Japanese culture. The first official ones were crafted by a Chinese entrepreneur in Waikiki—out of leftover kimono material. How fitting.
Let’s face it: Super Cool Biz won’t save too much energy, but what better to way to brighten our suffering? On one thing, Mike and I completely agree: “Even if we ignore the energy conservation aspect, Japanese businesses really need to lose the formality and aim for a more human connection with clients.” Amen.
So, if you’re going to help conserve energy this summer, go big or go home. Bring on the floral, bring on the surf. Bring on the sunset vistas and palm trees. Bring on Matisse, Reyn Spooner, Wal-Mart or Don Quixote—in vintage silk, cool rayon, leisure suit terry, itchy polyester or simple cotton cloth. Bring on the loud, the garish, or the just plain ugly. Just don’t bring on the boring. We all need to do our part to loosen up—and chill out Tokyo.
This commentary originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).© Japan Today