Japan Pushes Casual Fry Days

Times Staff Writer

The temperature tickled the 80-degree mark in Tokyo this week, a taste of the inevitable scorching Japanese summer to come. So what's a suffering salaryman to do when the sun burns and the streets sizzle and the humidity makes it feel like he's trying to breathe from the inside of a dog's mouth?

Well, he can start by taking off his tie and jacket, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi says.

Koizumi wants Japanese businessmen to dress down this summer, to leave their monochromatic ties and dark jackets at home, to swap their stubborn attachment to the standard suit for something more casual. It's a part of the prime minister's plan to save energy by using less air conditioning in offices and government buildings, and for that he needs businessmen and bureaucrats to do a bit more cooling down on their own by loosening their collars.

The trick will be getting them to relax enough to slip into something more comfortable.

Koizumi plans to lead by example. Opening a national campaign in March to get Japan to meet its greenhouse gas emission-reduction targets as outlined by the Kyoto Protocol, he vowed that his Cabinet ministers would come to work this summer in open-necked shirts and showing their sleeves.

"This summer, in principle, ministers will wear no ties and no jackets," he said. "Let's contribute to saving energy.

"Of course, I'll try too," he added.

Koizumi's energy-saving theory is based on a belief that Japanese middle managers will, as always, follow the boss. He believes that a style revolution can be passed down from a Cabinet minister to top bureaucrats, eventually trickling down. And he wants business leaders to do the same.

The obstacle is the fashion fear factor. Suggest "casual" to most Japanese middle managers, and they start to, well, sweat.

"Yes, it's uncomfortable, but that style of wearing a suit is almost like a uniform for us," said Akira Chono, chief executive producer of the Japan Productivity Center for Socio-Economic Development. "If we have to switch to a free style, we will feel nervous, and it could cost a lot to buy a new wardrobe.

"A variety of uniforms should be available," he advised. "Some rule or code should be established rather than going to completely individual fashion."

Although this is a country where millions of young men and women dress in a riot of uninhibited fashion glee, there is little confidence that the colonies of businessmen and bureaucrats know how to do casual. They will just look sloppy, some younger Japanese warn. A businessman without his suit tends to look stiff, like a crease ironed into jeans.

Some of the fear rests with memories of a very unfortunate moment in Japanese fashion history.

When a Japanese politician offers fashion advice these days, the public immediately thinks of Tsutomu Hata.

Briefly prime minister in the mid-'90s, Hata, now 69, is best remembered for his energy-efficient wardrobe. (He led the nation for just 64 days.) Most memorably, he took to podiums in 2000 modeling his notion of sensible wear: a sort of safari number he called the e-cool suit -- "e" being short for "eco" -- a jacket cut from a thin textile and boasting sleeves that stop, alarmingly, at the elbows.

Not only did it not catch on, it caused a collective fashion trauma that lingers.

Indeed, in recent years, any inclination in the business community to dress modishly has been in retreat.

In the mid-'90s, Japanese companies, like their Western counterparts caught up in the black T-shirt fad of the Internet go-go years, introduced casual Fridays as a way to loosen up the working atmosphere.

"The idea was it was supposed to relax you," said Masaru Tamamoto, a leading Japanese political analyst. "But instead, everybody got stressed out wondering what to wear."

Widely seen as a resounding failure, casual Friday was quietly put out of its misery amid the implosion of the economic bubble. Tokyo's business districts are again a study in fashion blandness. The orientation program for company recruits still includes instructions on how to dress to fit in.

"The tie tribe is the tie tribe -- it is difficult to break tradition," said Yasutoshi Konishi, a consultant at the energy policy department of the Mitsubishi Research Institute.

"It might be acceptable within a particular company or office, but when workers visit other companies, many feel uncomfortable wearing a polo shirt with no tie."

But just like that wide-lapelled jacket you just can't throw out, the concept of dressing informally for the office in summer is trying to make a comeback.

The resurrection has little to do with fashion and a great deal to do with the price of oil.

Japan imports more than 80% of its energy, and cost and demand are soaring. Electricity use jumped 3.7% in 2004, largely because of a brutal summer heat wave, the memory of which still makes Japanese wince. Meanwhile, under Kyoto Protocol stipulations, the country is committed to slashing its greenhouse gas emissions by 6% over the next five years from its 1990 levels.

The result is a willingness to consider the imponderable in order to save energy. Already, Japan seems set to move to daylight-saving time by 2007. The country shifted to daylight-saving time during the postwar U.S. occupation, but dropped the measure in 1952 after four years of using the extra daylight to wring more hours of labor out of workers. Many Japanese still equate "springing forward" with longer work days, and hate the idea.

And now they're bracing for hotter work days. Koizumi wants thermostats set no lower than 28 degrees Celsius -- a number that sounds warmer when converted to 82 degrees Fahrenheit.

The Environment Ministry can't say exactly how much energy this would save, but among some segments of the population, there appears to be a willingness to make a fashion concession to global warming.

It certainly would make many female office workers happy, said Yuka Miyazaki, 33, who complains that she shivers in an office kept at frigid temperatures all summer for the comfort of buttoned-up men.

And in May, a group of chief executives will travel to Expo 2005 in Nagoya to saunter down the catwalk in casual styles deemed suitable for wearing to work. The Japanese media have dubbed the phenomenon "cool biz."

"I would suggest a shirt style with the top two buttons undone and no tie, but still wear a jacket," said Ichiro Kishida, editor of the men's fashion magazine Leon. The Japanese should dress with a bit more of a "bad guy" image, he said. Like the Italians.

Koizumi can already count on one disciple to his cause. Former Prime Minister Hata has never stopped pushing the casual style. His personal website even directs visitors to a Tokyo boutique where you can still buy the e-cool suit. (A spokeswoman for the shop says it sells 20 to 30 of them a year.) Hata's office says he fully supports Koizumi's initiative.

It's a sort of vindication, after all. When it comes to fashion, some people are just ahead of the curve.

Hisako Ueno of The Times' Tokyo Bureau contributed to this report.

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