In mid-January, Takeshi Kobori, the Japan Necktie Association (JNA) chairman, met with Japan’s environment minister Sakihito Ozawa and handed him a two-page letter of demands. The message: stop vilifying the necktie.
Last week, Kobori recounted how the necktie got its bad rap. He traced it to the summer of 2005, when the government adopted the slogan “no necktie, no jacket” for its “Cool Biz” campaign. Back then, Tokyo was trying to rally public support for a plan to fight global warming by reducing the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.
Why target the business community? Partly because office buildings are a major source of carbon dioxide. If Tokyo could get the Japanese salary man to go tie-less during the balmy months, businesses wouldn’t have to blast the office air-conditioning. The economy might get a lift, too, if white-collar workers bought short-sleeved shirts and khaki pants to beat the heat.
But in Kobori’s view, Tokyo had effectively imposed a summer ban on ties. Department stores removed ties from their shelves for several months. Father’s Day sales – previously second only to Christmas – were hit. At one point, the government distributed posters for companies to display and even cited research that going tie-less was cooler. “Last month, I told the minister, ‘Leave neckties out of this,’” says Kobori, who is dressed in a navy suit, blue-striped shirt, purple silk tie and ivory pocket square. “We should be looking for a scientific or technological solution.”
Kobori has repeatedly aired his industry’s grievances. But he is careful to make the JNA’s case while also stressing that the group doesn’t side with climate-change sceptics; the JNA has been accused before of being anti-green. The JNA’s letter called for the government to end Cool Biz and focus on research. “The tone was more forceful than in the past,” he says.
According to Kobori and another tie-company CEO who was present, the environment minister agreed to consider the demands. But Toshihiro Hayashi, a ministry official, says that Cool Biz is here to stay. It triggered an estimated ¥100bn (£700m) in spending – on everything from short-sleeved shirts to loafers – in the first year, he says. He credits the no-necktie slogan with helping to change the mindset that frowned on casual office attire but says the slogan has already been dropped. “We’re stressing that companies set the thermostat to 28 degrees. We just wanted people to dress comfortably for the heat,” Hayashi says. Kobori, a spry 75-year-old, is the second generation in his family to run Mimatsu Shoji, a Tokyo necktie wholesaler and importer. He joined his father’s company in 1962, after quitting his banking job, and became president 11 years later. Over four decades, he watched as kimono silk weavers profited from neckties and the spread of air-conditioners lifted tie sales.
Kobori knows that Cool Biz isn’t solely to blame for the industry’s woes. In 1990, Japanese businessmen were buying an average of three ties a year. Then the country’s bubble economy popped and consumers gave up their free-spending ways. Former prime minister Tsutomu Hata’s push to popularise the short-sleeved “eco-suit” for summer, Casual Fridays and the rise of Uniqlo, Zara and H&M put a dent in sales, too.
But Cool Biz made things worse. A year after its start, tie sales slid 5 per cent, according to JNA data. The figure flatlined but the global financial meltdown in 2008 sent sales 10 per cent lower from the year before. The trend most likely continued last year. The JNA now has just 45 companies, a third of the members at its peak. This is despite the industry’s efforts to promote tie-giving occasions – including National Necktie Day and Give-A-Valentine’s-Necktie – and new products.
Kobori, who says that he’s never without a tie at work, pulls off his tie to show one recent innovation. The tie is a variant of the clip-on. Instead of a clip it has a rope that loops around his neck under the collar and threads behind a pre-tied half-Windsor knot. “It wasn’t a big seller,” he says. “People think of a necktie as a strip that you tie yourself.”
Does Kobori believe an end to Cool Biz will solve everything? “No, I think sales will probably get worse and more companies will fail anyway,” he says. “But I’m optimistic. As long as there are dress shirts and suits, there will be ties.”