Just as a 1,000-km journey begins with a single step, it seems that the arduous process of reducing Japan’s greenhouse gas emissions starts with the simple removal of a few neckties.
This, at least, appears to be the thinking behind the government’s latest initiative to tackle global warming.
On Thursday, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi told all his Cabinet ministers and central government bureaucrats to shed their neckties and jackets between June 1 and Sept. 30 (except during official functions) as a means of reducing air conditioner use and thus saving energy.
“The move is meant to show (the government’s) resolve to achieve Japan’s target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 6 percent” as pledged in the Kyoto Protocol, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda explained.
The previous day, the Environment Ministry dubbed this the “Cool Biz” initiative, with the name selected by a nine-member panel out of some 3,200 that were submitted by the general public.
Among the panel’s members were fashion designer Takeo Kikuchi and Kenshi Hirokane, author of the popular comic “Shima Kosaku,” which revolves around the life of an elite businessman.
“By donning the ‘Cool Biz’ look, I hope (businessmen) will cooperate so that the country can fulfill its Kyoto Protocol pledge,” Environment Minister Yuriko Koike told a news conference.
While government entreaties to the public to cut down on air conditioner use are nothing new, these appeals have taken on a new urgency since the Kyoto Protocol took effect in February.
Though Japan must curb greenhouse emissions by 6 percent from 1990 levels by 2012, it is way behind this target; fiscal 2003 emissions were 8 percent higher than the those of the base year.
Among the various greenhouse gases in question, carbon dioxide emissions from offices are growing rapidly. In fiscal 2003, these emissions stood at 197 million tons, an increase of 36.9 percent from the 1990 level.
Environment Ministry officials stated the ministry is lobbying various sectors of society to promote a more flexible dress code and to refrain from overcooling offices.
The removal of a jacket and necktie results in a 2-degree reduction in the heat felt by the body, meaning that individuals can feel comfortable in a room where the air conditioning is set at 28, they said.
According to some observers, the government’s idea is not outlandish, as more office workers are now wearing casual attire.
Hiroshi Okuno, an employee of the Japanese branch of a Swiss pharmaceutical company, said he seldom wears a necktie or jacket at the office, adding that many other employees are also casually dressed.
“It’s comfortable to be in such clothes, especially in summer and on rainy days,” the 32-year-old said.
According to apparel firm Haruyama Business Affairs Co., demand for casual businesswear among customers in their 20s and 30s is on the rise.
Yu Ikeda, a fashion designer and chairman of the industry association Japan Men’s Fashion Unity, said manufacturers of menswear have developed cooler and lighter informal businesswear over the past four or five years.
Items such as jackets made of light fabric that have no shoulder pads or lining, and shirts whose collar bases are wide and have two buttons, are becoming more popular, he said.
“These shirts look elegant even without a tie.”
Haruyama started selling these shirts some four or five years ago, company officials said, adding that demand has grown gradually and that they now account for close to 10 percent of total shirt sales.
While this trend is catching on among younger businessmen, their older counterparts still seem to prefer formal office attire.
The Energy Conservation Center, Japan, an incorporated foundation that operates under the jurisdiction of the Agency for Natural Resources and Energy, conducted a study last May of 154 organizations in the Kanto and Kinki regions that have achieved the ISO14001 standard, the international standard for environmental management.
According to the study, 72 percent of the entities surveyed said their executives wore neckties even in summer, while the corresponding figure for rank-and-file workers stood at 43 percent.
The study also showed that workers at a majority of the organizations wore jackets when meeting people outside the firm, regarding this as a nonnegotiable aspect of time-honored practice.
Hisataka Asaga, manager of the overseas personnel section of a Tokyo-based automobile parts maker, wears a necktie and jacket even when he meets clients in the summer. Asaga, who is in his mid-40s, added that the air conditioning at his office is set below 28.
“I don’t want people to think of me as impolite,” he said. “A jacket is like a suit of armor. When I wear it, I’m in work mode.”
It is true that casual office attire still strikes many people as unusual.
For example, Japanese media often remark on the “tieless” appearance of Takafumi Horie, president of Internet firm Livedoor Co.
Horie stepped into the limelight by seeking to acquire a professional baseball team last year, attracting further publicity during his recent battle with Fuji Television Network Inc. for control of Nippon Broadcasting System Inc.
Asaga of the auto parts maker said he welcomes informal dress, but asserts that he himself cannot follow this trend as his clients and company executives don jackets and neckties.
The Environment Ministry found that many salarymen working at hierarchical Japanese companies ape their bosses’ dress code.
In an effort to change this attitude, the ministry decided to hold a fashion show featuring businesswear devoid of neckties, calling on respected industry leaders to be models.
The show, which will feature clothes designed by Hiroko Koshino and Takeo Kikuchi, will be held at the World Exposition in Aichi Prefecture on June 5. Noted business leaders such as Toyota Motor Corp. Chairman Hiroshi Okuda, who is also head of the Japan Business Federation, are expected to be models.
Fashion designer Ikeda acknowledged that a necktie and jacket can provide an aura of dignity, pride and a trustworthiness.
But the same effects can be achieved without a necktie, provided an effort is made to look elegant and intellectual, he maintained.
While Japanese businessmen have been renowned for their devotion to their companies, this attitude has changed since the implosion of the bubble economy in the early 1990s, he said.
Many salarymen have come to place a greater emphasis on enjoying their lives, with this change in values influencing their fashion choices, according to Ikeda.
By wearing casual clothing, “they can make themselves more stylish and show their individuality while saving energy at the same time,” he said.
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