The Japanese Do “Summer Fridays” Like Nobody Else – Cool Biz

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If you’re in Japan as an expat or planning a business trip there soon, you need to know about Cool Biz. It’s the season for it, after all.

Cool Biz is a dress code, a set of environmental guidelines and a summer-time way of life initiated by the Japanese Ministry of the Environment in 2005 to reduce electrical consumption. Initially only for Japan’s government offices and personnel, the idea has spread into the private sector. Cool Biz used to run from June to September but was revamped to stretch from May to October after the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami took much of Japan’s nuclear power generation offline.

Wait, what is Cool Biz again?

Cool Biz is a set of four guidelines to make summer more bearable without touching the thermostat. Let’s take a look at them:

1. Cool Fashion

To most Japanese, Cool Biz means a new dress code for summer.

Gone are the mandatory neckties and suit coats for men, perhaps the most obvious change. While some offices will slide closer to what an American might consider business casual, Cool Biz generally sticks to what your mom might call dark colored “slacks and a nice shirt.”

Pants from a suit are common in government and large company offices, along with white collared shirts. No jeans, no khakis, and no t-shirts for the most part (a very brief initiative under the name Super Cool Biz for people to wear Hawaiian shirts to work died a most painful death), though smaller firms and tech shops can relax things a bit more. Still, unless your job is as a DJ, don’t come to work looking like you just came from a Sex Pistols reunion concert.

9Image Source: Mainichi

This all took some getting used to, given things like the old adage about leaving the house “no tie, no job.” In order to ease the transition after Cool Biz was unveiled in 2005, then-Prime Minister Koizumi was frequently interviewed without a tie or jacket. He’d also be seen on TV telling his own staff to remove their ties, and to wear short-sleeved shirts in the office.

(Not everyone was happy with the growing acceptance of Cool Biz. Necktie manufacturers complain summer sales have dropped 36% since 2005, and have futilely asked the Ministry of the Environment to end the campaign.)

But don’t leave the suit jacket at home. Calling on a client generally still requires it, so you’ll still see Japan’s hardcore salarymen with the jacket (dark blue or black) slung over their shoulders on the subway, en route to a sales call.

Women, in Japan’s male-dominated society, have been largely left to the sidelines of Cool Biz.

Many who work in traditional offices serve as OLs, Office Ladies (a cross between a receptionist and secretary at best), and are expected to wear a uniform, a jacket, skirt and white shirt. Some will ditch the jacket, but otherwise don’t join into Cool Biz with too much vigor. Women’s magazines will feature special summer clothing that employs odor-fighting fabrics, and promotes makeup and hairstyles that reduce the unpleasantness of the summer humidity and heat. Still, about a third of all female Japanese workers still wear the same clothing most of the year.

And don’t worry about looking too cool too early — the official start of Cool Biz is set by the government and widely announced in the media. In 2016, it was May 1. That in itself is very Japanese, dressing for the calendar, not the thermometer.

2. Cool Work

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All that fashion modification is centered around making a Cool Work environment more tolerable.

Step one for businesses is to raise the interior temperature, setting air conditioning to an 82.4°F. Given body heat and computers, plus the fact that 70% humidity in July and August is not unheard of, the inside of most offices can get steamy. You need those short sleeves.

Businesses are also encouraged to dim or just not use office lights, shut down half of the elevators, and move to a cooler working schedule, opening earlier in the morning, and sending people home earlier after the day has heated up. While anxious to cut their electricity bills by cutting back on the A/C, fewer businesses are interested in shorter or less standard hours, especially if their own customers are not doing the same. Overtime in Japan, seen as a sign of commitment to one’s job, also still holds steady. But hey, if you stay at work long enough things usually do cool down a bit, right?

Lastly, businesses are encouraged to allow workers to take more summer vacation time. Like more and more Americans, Japanese workers tend not to use up their allotted vacation time, mainly as a show of commitment to their employers and a sign of group efforts among the staff. This side of Cool Biz hasn’t really cooled off too many.

3. Cool House

The Cool House initiative is pretty similar to the Cool Work one, encouraging people to use less electricity, fewer lights and purchase more energy efficient appliances. Some people will freeze special plastic packets of coolant and place them under their seat cushions and pillows. The whole Cool House concept has its adherents, as power bills in Japan are sky high and saving money is on everyone’s minds.

4. Cool Idea

The final tenant of Cool Biz is pretty much not understood by anyone — Cool Idea. The general sense is that people are supposed to think up new and innovative, dare we say, cool, ways of putting the philosophical and practical sides of Cool Biz into practice.

So maybe some ice cream after you leave work early in your short sleeved shirt?

Bonus: If you’re lucky enough to live near a branch of Japanese clothing retailer Uniqlo outside of Japan, check out their line of sweat-wicking underwear. It’s all Cool Biz stuff repurposed as sports gear.

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