Japan tries to keep its cool - Monocolumn | Monocle


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24 June 2011

The world news agenda might have moved on to new locations, but the aftermath of the earthquake, tsunami and subsequent nuclear disaster in Japan on 11 March continues to make headline news at home. As summer approaches and Tokyo Electric Power Co. – the operator of the stricken nuclear power plant at Fukushima – struggles to cope with increased demand for electricity, corporate Japan is gearing up to make essential power savings to meet the government’s call for 15 per cent cuts by domestic and industrial consumers.

The government’s annual call for warmer offices and short-sleeved ‘Cool Biz’ work attire has been upped this year to the even more casual ‘Super Cool Biz’, encouraging workers to wear polo-shirts, T-shirts and even jeans to the office. [Cue photos of workers at the Ministry of the Environment in tieless Hawaiian shirts.] Between July and September all 25,000 employees of the Tokyo metropolitan government will be working to new summertime hours, meaning starts of 07.30 for some. The plan is that once office hours are over, the air conditioning (set at a balmy 28C) will be switched off. The rest of the country is following suit.

Nissan’s core working day now runs from 08.00 to 17.00. From 1 July, workers at Sony will be starting at 08.30, an hour earlier than usual. Telecoms giant Softbank has announced that 3,000 of its employees will be rotating in and out of the office over the summer and 30 per cent of the floor space at its central Tokyo headquarters will be closed off. Toshiba’s office and factory workers will be taking unprecedented two- and three-week breaks and work on Saturdays from October to make up the days. At Hitachi – where factories are being covered in greenery to keep temperatures down – workers will be replacing the two-day weekend with days off during the week.

Rail passengers are already starting to feel the heat in the humid rainy season and Tokyo Metro has announced that it will be cutting air conditioning altogether at certain times of the day. Railway companies are also responding to the temporary surge in early morning commuters. Tokyu Railways’ temporary summer schedule will see trains running an hour earlier than usual, at 04.50.

Japan’s Ministry of the Environment is leading by example and looking to make 25 per cent power savings this summer. “The media tend to focus on fashion,” says Kazuharu Aizawa, who works in the Ministry’s Global Environment Bureau, on the Cool Biz phenomenon, “but the most important thing is to change the way people work by shifting hours and holidays. Companies are setting their own summer plans – some have already started their summer schedule – and we expect the idea to spread.”

Whether this summertime revolution will mean long-term changes to Japanese corporate culture is still unclear. Weekday weekends sound good to golfers but less appealing to parents who have to factor in the cost of extra childcare. One company, however, is making a permanent change. Taiheiyo Cement Corporation has announced that their “no-necktie” period will be all-year-round. It won’t be a Cool Biz fashion free-for-all though. Its guidelines say “T-shirts, aloha shirts, blue jeans, and very short skirts are inappropriate.”


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