Japan Sweats It Out as It Wages War on Air Conditioning
Japan Sweats It Out as It Wages War on Air Conditioning
TOKYO – Late last month, the presidents of Japan's three biggest banks gathered to make an important announcement: They were abandoning formal attire for the rest of the summer – and insisting that their 1,630 branches nationwide keep office temperatures at a steamy 82 degrees Fahrenheit in order to conserve energy. In a formal ceremony in Tokyo, young women in cotton kimonos splashed water from wooden buckets on the baking ground – a traditional way to cool it down without using extra power.
"I want the banking world to get together to promote Cool Biz," said Mitsui Sumitomo Banking Corp. chief Masayoshi Oku, lined up with two other bank presidents and the environment minister – all with open-necked shirts and no jackets.
Cool Biz is the latest stage in Japan's aggressive campaign to lead the world in reducing energy use. Japan already uses less energy per dollar of output than other major economies. But the government is eager to do more. If all offices raised their temperatures to 82 from 79.2 degrees between June and end of September, when the hot season ends, it says Japan could reduce carbon-dioxide emissions by up to 2.9 million tons over the summer – roughly the amount caused by six million households in a month.
In a country where people are known for doing things together, the campaign has produced a swift, universal change in behavior since it started with government offices two years ago. Everyone from the prime minister to office workers, who have traditionally stuck to suits and ties even at the height of summer, started taking off their ties. Last summer, department stores displayed fashionable shirts that supported the no-tie look. And this year, the campaign has hit just about everywhere, with corporate offices, restaurants and even grocery stores ratcheting up the temperature.
For Jack Sayed, an American manager working for a Japanese manufacturer, the effort seems a bit much. When he entered his Tokyo office this summer, "it was like a heat wave attacking you from the inside," says the 41-year-old. "My neck and back and palms got sweaty."
Mr. Sayed has a point. Some experts say Cool Biz is too hard on the body. Kozo Hirata, a physiology professor at Kobe Women's University in western Japan, has studied the interaction of clothes and skin and says 82 degrees can be comfortable only if you're thin, naked and stay still. Any physical activity warms up the body, and even light clothing hinders the skin's natural cooling mechanism. Because fat is an insulator, he says, just an extra millimeter under the skin makes a big difference. For overweight people, 82 degrees "is impossible," he says.
But there is growing social pressure in Japan not to complain. In fact, too much air conditioning is now seen as shameful – the equivalent of unnecessary trips in gas-guzzling automobiles.
Instead, local governments have organized water-splashing ceremonies, which in one case reduced surrounding temperatures by 5 degrees and the ground temperature by 22 degrees. The city of Hiroshima provided four tons of recycled sewage water for such use.
In Shizuoka, in central Japan, a local government-linked group has set up a hotline for whistleblowers to report suspected instances of overcooling. Last year it got 103 calls from people complaining that trains, department stores and other places had cranked up the air conditioning too far. The group, called the Shizuoka Center for Climate Change Actions, doesn't have any coercive power. But it says many have turned up the temperature anyway after being informed of their offense.
Office workers, meanwhile, are coming up with creative ways to stay cool. Some take their laptops to company cafeterias, where it's normally cooler, or schedule as many meetings as possible in small conference rooms with adjustable air conditioning. Others have electric fans on or under their desks. Some wave traditional hand-held fans. One new solution: Cooling pads applied to the forehead that contain heat-radiating gel – a product originally used to soothe feverish children. Sales of the pads, made by toiletries producer Lion Corp., rose 20% in July and August this year, the company says.
Koei Obata, a research manager at Daikin Industries Ltd., an air-conditioner maker in Osaka, suggests setting up a special cooler room to help salespeople recover when they're hot from their rounds outside. The issue, he says is to keep saving energy but also keep the office environment comfortable and maintain productivity.
Still, Daikin officials in Tokyo quietly concede that the temperature in their own office is set at 79 degrees. Daikin abandoned its original 75 degrees and tried 82 when the Cool Biz movement first kicked off – but called it quits after a day. "Everyone became irritated and less efficient at their work," says spokeswoman Kaori Yamada. She adds that 82 degrees "is an energy-saving environment – not a human environment."
Some Japanese men still can't fathom the idea of working without a suit and tie, and have decided to stick it out in the heat. Masaki Nishimura, a consultant for a human-resources firm in Tokyo, says the offices he visits are often way too hot. But while clients invite him to remove his jacket, "I cannot take it off," he says. "They are our customers." He would rather bake in the name of good manners.
Last month, Takeo Nishioka, a 71-year-old member of Parliament's upper house, complained that casual dress was an affront to the dignity of the chamber, and has stuck to a suit and tie in spite of the heat. "How can parliamentarians be all relaxed when visiting schoolchildren turn up in full uniform?" he said in a session Aug. 9. He suggested making neckties obligatory again, but so far hasn't won any noticeable support.
Even if most of Japan learns to cope with 82 degrees, there are worrisome signs that one day that might not be sufficient. The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry demonstrated an extreme form of Cool Biz last month. Normally Japan has no problem producing all the electricity it needs. But the temporary shutdown of a nuclear plant for checkups after an earthquake combined with record temperatures on Aug. 22 triggered a demand for heavy electricity users, such as big metal factories, to stop production in the afternoon. METI was not asked to cut back but decided to do so anyway and cranked up the room temperature to 86 degrees.
"The ministry needs to take the lead, and this was a good example to others," says a METI official, adding that he and his colleagues decided to quietly tough it out during the four-hour period. "Outside it was 99 degrees, so 86 inside felt quite cool in comparison."