Attention all office workers: You’re officially allowed to hang up your suit and tie and don a polo shirt and casual slacks. This is because of Japan’s ‘Cool Biz’ campaign, started in the summer of 2005 by the government’s Ministry of the Environment to help office workers cope with the summer heat. It’s officially okay to dress more casually.
The point of Cool Biz isn’t just to keep workers cool. It’s an environmental campaign. The government started the campaign to encourage businesses to turn down the AC during the summer months (a similar campaign called Warm Biz has been launched for the winter months, although it hasn’t really caught on). It’s a measure to combat global warming.
In 2011, the campaign became even more important as the country’s nuclear reactors went offline following the Fukushima meltdown. In an effort to prevent summertime blackouts, the government broadened the campaign to become ‘Super Cool Biz.’ Putting ‘super’ in the name extended it to aloha shirts, t-shirts, sneakers and jeans (depending on the company’s own specific guidelines). It was also extended by two months.
What to wear? The Ministry has laid out guidelines for companies to follow. Men are allowed to chuck the suit and tie. Acceptable summertime clothes include open-necked short-sleeve shirts, polo shirts, and lighter slacks that allow some air flow. Some companies allow sneakers, jeans and sandals. The guidelines are not as clear for women.
Cool Biz was proposed in 2005 by then Minister of the Environment Yuriko Koike and supported by then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. It started with government workers. It was announced that no jacket or tie would be required in the Lower House except during full sessions.
It sent shock-waves through the political world. Opponents said it would look undignified and sloppy. Indeed, it took some time to catch on. Many of the first government employees to dress down felt horribly uncomfortable getting on commuter trains or meeting with customers suit-less. Companies began to follow suit (sorry), but many office workers brought their suits and ties to work just in case everyone else did.
Each summer’s Cool Biz kicks off with a government sponsored fashion show where the prime minister and his cabinet stand around awkwardly in this year’s acceptable office wear looking like they wish they were somewhere else, preferably in a suit.
According to a survey conducted by the Ministry of the Environment, Cool Biz is working. With thermostats set higher, it’s estimated that the campaign reduced CO2 emission by 1.14 million tons in 2006, which is the equivalent of 2.5 million households. However, the necktie industry is suffering and has asked the government to end the campaign.
The shortages following the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami in 2011 led to the launch of a new Super Cool Biz campaign with full-page newspaper ads and photos of ministry workers smiling rather self-consciously at their desks wearing polo shirts and colorful Okinawa kariyushi shirts. To conserve energy, the government recommended setting air conditioners at 28 degrees Celsius, switching off computers not in use, and called for shifting work hours to the morning and taking more summer vacation than usual.