Monday, May 16, 2011
A recurring feature here every summer lately is "Cool Biz"; a campaign to limit air conditioner use in offices during summer and have office workers dress a bit more casually - no tie and no jacket - to combat the heat instead. This campaign has taken off, and it seems most offices go casual between June and September or so.
This summer the campaign becomes more important than usual. The Tohoku disaster has caused major disruptions in energy production. It's not just - or even primarily - the broken-down reactors at Fukushima; a couple of major coal and gas power plants were also heavily damaged, a number of power plants were emergency shut-down, and one plant - Hamaoka - that lies right on top of a fault overdue for a quake has been ordered to halt until safety measures can be strengthened. A number of other reactors are due for yearly maintenance and inspection and are or will be shut-down for summer. If no reactors get permission to restart again - and in the face of the ongoing Fukushima disaster it would be difficult - Asahi Shimbun estimates that 42 out of 54 reactors, 80% of the nuclear capacity, will be offline during the hot summer months.
The government is setting an enforced 15% power savings target for eastern Japan during summer, and capacity is stretched thin in western Japan as well. The environmental agency is instituting "Super Cool Biz" in their own offices, where they allow employees to wear t-shirts, jeans and Hawaiian-style short-sleeved shirts. They also recommend extending the Cool Biz period to between May and October.
I don't expect a lot of companies will go as far as allowing t-shirts in the office, but NHK did have a segment last week on a company that institutes "Extreme Cool Biz" this summer, with no air conditioner at all, just fans and open windows, and employees wear t-shirts or tank-tops. It's a web design company, with an average employee age of 25 or so, which makes it a tad less surprising perhaps. You're unlikely to ever find the branch manager of a major bank in a tank-top at the office (and when you consider the physical condition of middle-aged office workers I doubt you'll want to).
Cool Biz doesn't really affect me personally; I wear the normal academic uniform of jeans and open shirt all year round. But I do see it during my commute of course. It's become a sign of summer when the dark coats and ties all but disappear in the subway, and when the coats and ties return you know we're due for autumn. It almost makes me wish for a festival or something; each company with its own salaryman dance troupe parading down Midosuji street on the morning of June 1st, ceremoniously casting off their coats and tie to welcome the summer.
I've noticed a possible longer-term change. Some years ago, salarymen all wore their suit jacket and tie in the mornings, ready for the office. But the past couple of winters more and more office workers - up to one in four perhaps, this winter - elect to go casual for their commute, and put on their tie and coat only once they reach the office. It seems Cool Biz is gradually eroding the perception of proper business attire. After all, if it's OK to wear an open shirt when it's 35 degrees, why not when it's 25? The strict suit-shirt-tie uniform is certainly here to stay for now, but I would not make any bets for the next generation.