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Sunday, June 18, 2006



Dress-fest for a warming world thaws political chill

Staff writer

These days, between blasts of hot air over disputed gas fields and outbursts condemning "revisionist" history books, it's rare to hear praise from China for its geopolitical rival to the east.

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Chinese Ambassador Wang Yi (center foreground, top) with Japanese Environment Minister Yuriko Koike, Hong Kong actor-singer Leon Lai (right) and Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso at the Cool Asia 2006 show in Tokyo

So it was all the more surprising to learn that China's Ambassador to Japan, Wang Yi, was beside himself with admiration last month after taking part in Cool Asia 2006, a "green" fashion show hosted in Tokyo by the Environment Ministry in a bid to "send an anticlimate-change message from Asia to the world."

Clearly, last year's Cool Biz campaign in Japan had struck a chord by encouraging people to wear cooler clothing in summer and so reduce the role of air conditioning in making that stifling season bearable. According to the ministry, in fact, just by setting air-con dials nationwide at no cooler than 28 C, Japanese businesses could cut each summer's emissions of carbon dioxide, a chief culprit in global warming, by a whopping 1.6-2 million tons.

As "son of Cool Biz," Cool Asia 2006 may have put Japan in a good light, but Wang nonetheless seemed eager to lavish warm praise.

"It was just a wonderful event," gushed the diplomat, according to a Chinese Embassy spokesman. "The energy problem is a shared worldwide problem, and Japan's policies of energy conservation are extremely advanced."

If Wang was at all hot under the collar about, say, that nasty little standoff with Tokyo in March over Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's visits to Yasukuni Shrine, he wasn't going to let that pour cold water on the extravaganza.

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A poster distributed to businesses by the Environment Ministry's "Team Minus 6%" encouraging visitors to dress Cool Biz style.

In case you missed the May 31 fashion bash, held in the elegant new Omotesando Hills complex in the capital, Cool Asia 2006 featured a lineup of "models" comprising 10 Japanese Cabinet ministers and six ambassadors from Asian countries. By transforming these middle-aged men, and two women, into glittering style icons for a day, the event arguably did more for fashion in this part of the world than Tokyo's misbegotten biannual Fashion Week ever will.

There on the Cool Asia catwalk, for example, was Foreign Minister Taro Aso, looking quite the dapper don in blazer and slacks by Hong Kong tailors Noble House. His fellow soapbox China foe, Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, meanwhile, was radiant in a Louis Vuitton suit ensemble with boldly patterned pocket square. Both men, naturally, eschewed neckties, as is de rigueur in Cool Biz cool -- and both were on their politically best behavior, too, with ne'er a mention of even the merest disputed rock.

Not to be outdone, the Asian ambassadors sported exotic outfits from their homelands. Datuk Marzuki bin Mohammad Noor of Malaysia wore a loose-fitting, batik-printed shirt, while South Korea's Ra Jong Yil chose a stylish jacket made from moshi, a traditional cloth used for centuries for summer wear.

Still, it was China's Wang who stole the show.

Making his entrance like the other celebrity models atop the palatial staircase, he paused to momentarily acknowledge his audience with an exquisitely understated tilt of the head -- then descended with the effortless hauteur of a monarch. Not just in his gait was Wang outstanding here, but from the beatific expression on his face he looked about to stop mid-stair to bless the congregation of photographers dutifully snapping him in his Tang dynasty-design shirt woven from summer-friendly hemp.

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Dignitaries at the Cool Asia 2006 fashion show in Tokyo on May 31, 2006

Maybe fiftysomething Wang -- whose owlish eyebrows lend him a handsomely boyish air -- was just soaking up the limelight. Or maybe he should give up his day job dealing with all those vexatious Japanese and quirky North Koreans, and take careful note of the way one Japanese news program ran footage of his staircase descent over and over in rapid succession.

More likely, though, Wang's presentation was a stoic attempt to make the best of a bad situation -- one in which his own country has a lot of emissions accounting it should be doing.

Indeed, whatever the current White House incumbent might prefer to pretend, serious science is agreed that the world is warming -- and that it's in large part due to carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases produced by human activities.

We can all expect consequences. According to the Arlington, Va.-based Pew Center on Global Climate Change, "With warming will also come [an] additional sea-level rise that will gradually inundate coastal areas, changes in precipitation patterns, increased risk of droughts and floods, threats to biodiversity and a number of potential challenges for public health."

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Workers in sunny central Tokyo last week combine a casual air and Cool Biz sense as they shed neckties and more

The blame for all this rests in no small part with Asia's two economic behemoths, since China is second only to the United States in the global league table of carbon dioxide emissions. Russia is third, and Japan -- with its vehicle-related emissions thought to be rising despite Kyoto Protocol reduction targets -- is closely behind in fourth.

Be that as it may, Cool Biz is at least a step in the right direction.

Nowadays, if you pop into the menswear section of the Takashimaya department store near Tokyo Station, you will find, beneath a Cool Biz logo, shirts made with Japanese textile company Tomiya Apparel's high-tech NanoProof fabric, touted as being porous and quick-drying for the sticky summer days to come. At the rival Mitsukoshi store down the street, mannequins decked out in Armani, Burberry, Corneliani and the like reflect the zeitgeist by all appearing shamelessly un-necktied.

"This year, retailers have taken enormous initiatives even without government prodding," said Environment Ministry official Masataka Kiyotake.

But the ministry doesn't stop at retailers. To help businesses encourage their staff and others, including visiting salesmen wary of appearing rude, to change their ways, it provides them with posters reading, "Please come in Cool Biz style."

Back at the Chinese Embassy, spokesman Li Wen Liang hastened to point out that China is trying to play its part, too. Last year, he noted, Prime Minister Wen Jia Bao urged Chinese to ditch their neckties and to set air conditioners at 26 C in summer -- not as big a power-saving as in Japan, but a positive move, for sure. Much as in Japan, it's China's bureaucrats who've taken the lead, and hopes are high that the private sector follows, um, suit.

Alas, according to a press pack that was being handed out at Cool Asia 2006, at formal events in China it remains "usually advisable to wear a suit because the wearer gains face if well presented."

Still, as Li optimistically observed, "We're behind Japan, but we're on the same track. We're being influenced -- in a good way."

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