With Japan sweltering through some of its hottest temperatures ever recorded this summer, more and more people are reaching for extra layers of clothing in a bid to keep cool.
If that sounds like a contradiction in terms, the growing popularity of jackets fitted with battery-powered fans that circulate air over the wearer’s body suggests otherwise.
First developed by Tokyo-based company Kuchofuku Co. Ltd., fan-fitted clothing has become a big hit with construction workers and other outdoor laborers since it launched in 2004.
With the mercury soaring to record levels in Japan in recent years, however, manufacturers are now taking the technology beyond the construction site and into new markets, including sportswear, high-street fashion and even baby products.
“Recently, summer has become so hot it’s unbearable,” says Daiyu Aoki, an assistant manager at baby products company Dadway Inc., which this year released a baby harness cover and a pushchair seat that both feature Kuchofuku fan technology.
“When a mother is out carrying her baby, it gets really hot for both of them,” he says. “Even 10 years ago, it wasn’t as hot as it is now. Nowadays, you see a lot of people wearing fan-fitted clothes, and we thought we might be able to put that to practical use for mothers and babies.”
Fan-fitted jackets usually feature two fans, one placed on each side of the lower back, which pump air around the upper body. The fans are connected to a lithium-ion battery, which slips into an inside pocket and can generally be used for around seven or eight hours before it needs to be recharged, depending on the manufacturer.
The technology was invented by Hiroshi Ichigaya, a Sony engineer for two decades until he left the company in 1991. Several years later, Ichigaya traveled to Southeast Asia, where he noticed how widespread the use of air-conditioning units was. He decided to try to invent a more energy-efficient way of cooling people down and, after striking upon the idea of fitting small fans to clothing, he founded Kuchofuku.
In 2004, after six years of development, Kuchofuku launched its first fan-fitted workwear products, and Ichigaya embarked on a media publicity blitz to explain his new invention to the public. The initial response, however, was one of confusion.
“When people get hot, they take their clothes off,” says Ichigaya. “They don’t think of wearing long sleeves. For tens of thousands of years, people have put on clothes when they’re cold and taken them off when they’re hot. People didn’t get the concept of putting clothes on when they were hot. At first, they didn’t want to wear them.”
Kuchofuku struggled in its early years, and at one point even came close to bankruptcy. Gradually, however, the products began to find favor with construction workers toiling under the blazing summer sun, and word of mouth helped to establish fan-fitted clothing as a must-have item for laborers around the country.
Numerous other workwear companies have since entered the market, and the fan-fitted clothing industry is estimated to be worth around ¥15 billion in 2020, according to textile industry publication Sen-I-News. As recently as 2017, it was worth only ¥5 billion.
“Japan has been very hot over the past five years,” says Yuichi Osaki, chief executive officer of Hiroshima-based workwear manufacturer Burtle, which began producing fan-fitted clothing in conjunction with electronics giant Kyocera five years ago. “From about five years ago, every workwear company started making fan-fitted workwear, to stop workers from getting heatstroke in the hot sun. It became a trend in summer workwear.
“In winter, you wear warm clothes to keep warm. Just like people will start wearing big coats when it gets to November, workers have started wearing fan-fitted clothes from around May. That started last year, and now it has become something that people do as a matter of course.”
Japan has experienced a historically hot summer this year, with the east of the country sweating through an August that was 2.1 degrees hotter than in an average year — the biggest such difference since records began in 1946. On Aug. 17, Hamamatsu in Shizuoka Prefecture hit a temperature of 41.1 degrees, which tied the national record set by Kumagaya, Saitama Prefecture, two years previously.
As summer temperatures continue to creep ever higher, it is not just construction workers who are looking to beat the heat. Everyone from fishing enthusiasts to parents of small children are struggling to deal with searing temperatures the minute they step out of their cooled homes, and fan-fitted clothing manufacturers have started to branch out to meet their needs.
Kuchofuku has launched a range of clothes aimed at people who enjoy golf or other outdoor pursuits, and has collaborated on products with a diverse range of firms including fashion label Takeo Kikuchi and anime franchise Neon Genesis Evangelion. The current face of the company’s marketing campaign is former Japan national team soccer player Yuji Nakazawa.
“The workwear side of the business is still bigger, but from last year, fashion and sportswear products have been selling more and more,” says Kuchofuku spokesman Tomoyuki Iwabuchi. “It’s expanding steadily. We use the fan-and-battery system from the workwear and incorporate it into clothes that are designed to be easier to wear. It could be a sleeveless jacket. Some customers don’t want to wear long sleeves, so this is easier for them to wear. It could be a jacket made from denim. We have lots of different designs.
“I think we’ll get more and more general customers. No one likes to be hot. Everyone wants to feel comfortable whether they’re at work or not.”
Burtle, meanwhile, has collaborated on products with streetwear brands Fragment Design and SOPH. and golf equipment and apparel manufacturer Callaway, while Kuchofuku’s tie-ups with baby products firm Dadway were released earlier this year.
Dadway’s baby harness cover, released under the company’s BabyHopper brand at the end of April, features a Kuchofuku fan that keeps the baby cool when it is fitted to the harness. Despite fan-fitted clothing’s strong association with construction workers, Dadway’s Aoki was confident the product would be a hit with his company’s customer base.
“We were aware of fan-fitted clothes technology from about five years ago, but we thought it might be something that the general public wouldn’t really take to yet,” says Aoki. “Now, it’s being used for sportswear, you see it on construction sites everywhere, and you also see it used in clothes for outdoor pursuits. It has moved into common usage.
“From what we’ve heard, nobody seems to feel self-conscious about wearing the fan in the harness cover. They seem to be more interested in finding out how much the cover weighs and how well it works.”
For manufacturers eyeing the fashion end of the market, however, there is one particular feature of fan-fitted clothing that may not be to everyone’s taste. The technology works by constantly circulating air around the body, causing the garment to puff up like a balloon.
“The clothes puff up because the cooling mechanism is effective,” says Hiroki Sato, a spokesperson for Hiroshima-based workwear company Sun-S. “So, if you think too much about how it looks and try too much to make it slimline, it won’t be very effective. It feels coolest when you’ve got sleeves, so you have to think about how cool it will feel if you make something that doesn’t have sleeves. We’re thinking about how we can achieve the balance between what it looks like and how effective it is.”
For the moment, fan-fitted clothing remains a largely domestic phenomenon, although Kuchofuku sells in China, Taiwan and the United States, and several other companies say they are exploring the possibility of marketing their products overseas.
Burtle’s Osaki says one potential hurdle is the varying standards relating to electrical goods in each country, but he and others acknowledge that cultural differences could also make fan-fitted clothing a non-starter with overseas consumers. Dadway’s Aoki thinks people in the U.S. or Europe tend to see the technology as “a bit of a joke,” and considers Southeast Asia a more likely target market.
Others, however, believe there is potential in Western countries. Sun-S has a sales presence in the U.S. and the company exhibited its products in California last year. Sato says the unfamiliar nature of the garments drew interest from visitors, and the company is thinking of returning to put on a bigger exhibition.
“California has a different climate to Japan, which is hot and humid,” says Sato. “They get a lot of strong sunlight over there, and the received wisdom is that when you get hot, you take your clothes off. But if you’re looking at workwear, there are some workplaces where you have to wear long sleeves.
“You might also get people who want to wear it in their own free time. There’s a culture of DIY in the U.S. I think if people who do that try on our clothes, they’ll feel for themselves how cool they are.”
Kuchofuku’s Iwabuchi says his company’s products are still selling in Japan despite the fiercest heat of this year’s summer having already passed, and he wears a fan-fitted jacket himself when he is at work or when he is doing something outside.
Dadway’s Aoki, meanwhile, believes more people will start to do the same as the planet continues to heat up and the punishing Japanese summer takes its toll.
“I think it’s something that will become more and more widely used,” says Aoki. “I don’t think the heat this year is an exception. They say it’s going to be as hot as this every year.”