Cool Biz. It's So Cool. Not.

(this article first appeared in the august 22, 2005 issue of newsweek international)

For Japanese salarymen, it's a fashion revolution. Just check out Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's cabinet meetings. Lately they're looking like a late-night card game among old-timers at a country club, with ministers forsaking their ties, donning casual shirts -- and looking mighty uncomfortable.

They're calling it Cool Biz. Earlier this summer, Environment Minister Yuriko Koike informed his countrymen that, by dressing light, Japan could save energy, and they could slow global warming by turning down their air conditioners and curbing power consumption. Koizumi promptly ditched his business suit -- Japan's beloved workaday uniform -- and went "caz."

Lions of industry took their cue. Toyota's 72-year-old chairman Hiroshi Okuda and Matsushita chairman Yoichi Morishita, 71, even appeared in a fashion show, strutting down the runway, in Cool Biz suits and (gasp) no ties. Department stores have since set up Cool Biz sections. Newspapers and magazines feature recommended ensembles: a checked button-down shirt, for example, with khaki cotton pants.

In lemminglike Japan, you might think salarymen everywhere would scramble to follow suit. But no. Two months into the campaign, my commuter train in Tokyo is still sardine-packed with dark suits. "Nobody I know is switching to Cool Biz," shrugs my friend Izumi, a 44-year-old businessman at a software firm. Even Hideaki Tagata, 31, who came up with the catchy "Cool Biz" in a nationwide naming competition, won't doff his tie. "I'll think about it when everybody else does," the sales chief at a Tokyo building-maintenance firm tells me.

This isn't the first attempt to pry salarymen out of their trademark attire. The image of Prime Minister Masayoshi Ohira's sporting a short-sleeved-jacket, labeled the "save-energy look" way back in the 1970s?still haunts the psyches of Japanese businessmen. Tsutomu Hata, P.M. for just two months in 1994, is remembered mostly (with shivers) for trying to revive that look. More recently, in the 1990s, the fashion industry tried to persuade salarymen to adopt American-style casual at least every Friday.

It didn't happen then -- and it won't happen now. Sure, stores report a jump in sales of button-down shirts, which can be worn without ties. Businessmen may even try taking off their jackets on really hot days. (I see hordes of them walking around with jackets on their arms.) But no, salarymen won't go tieless for long. "Their look is their identity," explains Keisuke Kanomata, a 21-year-old Tokyo fashionista whose young salaryman friends, to his horror, swear by their traditional corporate costume. "If they lost their ties and suits," he says, "they wouldn't know who they are."

People everywhere cling tenaciously to their symbols of identity. Just ask my father, a careerlong company loyalist who finally retired, at 69, in June. In his 47 years as an engineer and executive, he tells me, he never went to work without a tie and a suit. "Not once" I asked, "through 47 hot, humid and sticky Tokyo summers?" "No," he said, sounding a bit defensive?and stubborn. "Without a tie, it feels cold around my neck."

Yes, salarymen are a stubborn bunch. Who said they are conformity-minded, submissive slaves of Japan Inc.? On the contrary, I think of them as quiet rebels; in their dark, heavy jackets, and with ties around their necks, they reject top-down orders every day. I admire those who stick to their principles, so bravo to them. If only I didn't have to sit next to them, sopping wet with sweat, on the train each day.

(c) 2005 Newsweek, Inc.

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