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Sunday, June 12, 2005

MEDIA MIX

Japan's leaders try to be 'cool' to take heat off themselves


Some people are hard to please. Though he was a member of the committee that chose the term "Cool Biz" for the campaign launched last week to bring government dress more in line with seasonal realities, fashion designer and critic Don Konishi is very disappointed with the sartorial choices made by Diet members.

Suits and ties, claims Konishi in last week's Shukan Asahi, give politicians the requisite air of "respectable sensei," and once they shed them in the Diet looks more like a "meeting of condominium trustees." One can't dismiss 200 years of masculine fashion protocol with a simple environment ministry directive, he says. Removing one's necktie may seem like a liberating act, but the visual result is chaos. Who would want to copy these men? he asks.

Having seen Konishi on TV in his role as fashion pundit, you could ask the same about him. With his fleshy face and narrow glasses, ponytail and yakuza-standard pinstripe suits, he's an uninspiring example; more a parody of fashion propriety than an upholder of it. Nevertheless, the basic point he is making -- that a politician's role is at least partly related to his image -- is worth considering. "Saving energy is, of course, important," he says with regard to the purpose of the Cool Biz campaign, "but effectiveness is the main point."

During the week after the directive took effect, the mishmash of clothing choices was indeed distracting. When Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda met the press June 1, he wore an embarrassed smile rather than a jacket and tie, acting like a 10-year-old kid who was getting away with murder. Minister of Internal Affairs Taro Aso received more than the usual media attention with his billowy dress shirt and tacky gold necklace. METI Minister Shoichi Nakagawa, wearing a big open collar and wide-lapelled jacket, looked like a host-club employee. Konishi said he reminded him of some bigwig relaxing at his mistress's apartment.

As the head of the government, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi was expected to set the standard. However, most of the journalists mistook his blue Okinawan shirt for something less meaningful than intended. As in many tropical places, Okinawa has its own formal wear that takes the heat into consideration, but since Koizumi's choice was less colorful than the Okinawan attire that reporters might have been familiar with, they first thought he had simply forgotten to tuck his shirt in.

A missed opportunity, perhaps, but the buzz over collars and colors obscures the real purpose of the campaign, which is to turn down the air conditioning.

The media's take on Cool Biz has been about appearance and economic impact (men will spend more money on cooler clothing than on the usual summer suits), and has mostly sidestepped the issue of energy conservation.

There are few terms as oxymoronic as "climate control." The idea that we can control the forces of nature is not only self-deluding but arrogant. We merely adjust temperature and humidity within closed spaces. What's absurd about the situation that Cool Biz is meant to rectify is that indoor "climates" have been forced to bend to the will of fashion, or, more exactly, image protocol. Because men in business and government have to wear suits to be taken seriously, temperatures had to be forced downward in the summertime.

This is a very recent development, however. Up until 20 years ago, men naturally removed their jackets and loosened their ties at work when the weather was hot. The Ginza subway line has been air conditioned for only about a decade.

But while the Cool Biz campaign seems to represent a return to common sense, it is characterized as being forward-looking -- we can move beyond suits toward an acceptance of more varied clothing styles for work. Consequently, the media harps on Japanese men's perceived lack of imagination. Suits, they say, are beloved by workers not because of what they represent but because they obviate choice. Men don't have to think of what to wear every day.

This kind of coverage is as distracting as the Diet members' choice of button-down or Chairman Mao collars. What's supposed to be addressed is genuine energy conservation. The Cool Biz campaign was enacted because summer temperatures in government buildings will be set at 28 degrees, but a recent editorial in the Asahi Shimbun says that this new policy will only result in a 0.1-0.2 percent reduction in carbon-dioxide emissions.

There's already been a backlash. The tiemakers industry association, stung by the prospect of losing business (Fathers Day is coming up), has accused the government of trying to convince people that simply removing one's necktie will help Japan meet its CO2 reduction target.

As an energy-saving policy, Cool Biz gets its comeuppance from good old-fashioned ingenuity. Right now in India, a country that's hotter than Japan and has the potential to become a huge energy consumer as living standards rise, there's a popular new cooling device that exploits traditional technology using water and wood shavings rather than compressors and heat exchangers. The price of one of these devices is one-fifth that of an air conditioner and it uses one-tenth the energy. It is a rational, local solution to a situation that Indians have always lived with. Even better, it's a market-driven solution.

The Japanese government is confronting the problem from the opposite direction. They tell people to wear lighter clothing so that the air conditioning can be turned down. What they should do is not say anything and just turn it off completely; make all those men in suits sweat. Then they'd get the idea.



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