Is Japan truly moving to a ‘Cool Biz’ dress code?
Summer in Japan is getting hotter every year with a 35 degree weather as the new norm. According to a report from the Fire Department of Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, 18,347 people were transported to hospitals by emergency service due to heat stroke and 57 people died nationwide between July 29 and August 4 2019.
In such soaring temperatures, having to commute to work in a suit every day is not a pleasant experience and can in fact be quite stressful. As a result, many companies have adopted a “Cool Biz” dress code for the summer. An example is Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Co., Ltd. – one of the biggest banks in Japan, announcing that its employees can dress down to jeans and t-shirts when they are not client-facing during the Summer months. This news took Japan’s corporate world by surprise as banks are traditionally very traditional and conservative when it comes to their company culture and dress code.
The history of ‘Cool Biz’ in Japan
The term ‘Cool Biz’ was originally introduced in 2005 as part of Japanese campaign initiated by the Japanese Ministry of Environment to reduce the consumption of air conditioning in summer. This term is now widely recognised across Japan and has been redefined to refer to a series of measures to spend the summer comfortably and eco-friendlily.
In a survey conducted by the Japan Meteorological Association in 2017, 98% of participating companies recognised what ‘Cool Biz’ was. However, in comparison – only around 60% reported that they had actually implemented ‘Cool Biz’ in their company culture. Some companies even admitted that ties and jackets were still required when meeting business partners in spite of implementing ‘Cool Biz’ within their organisation.
People don’t like standing out from the crowd
Surprisingly enough –many employees have voiced that they prefer to wear a suit to their corporate job even in hot temperatures – rather than adopting a casual dress code that would be more comfortable to work in. The reason behind this is mainly because many employees are not sure how casual they can go. While it is relatively easy for men to wear a shirt and pants without the suit jacket and tie, many women have reported the challenge of adhering to a Cool Biz dress code as there is no consistent standards that apply to all companies.
If you go online search in Japanese, you can find a number of articles providing tips on how to dress down, mainly focus on how to “try not to stand out or be different from others”. This reflects how the social norm regarding the dress code is focused on being uniform and blending in with one’s surroundings. There’s a famous Japanese phrase “The nail that sticks out gets hammered in”. As this phrase expresses, the mind-set of “don’t stand out” is deeply ingrained in Japan’s culture.
“Don’t stand out” is particularly prominent for new grads
The other day, SThree participated in the “Career Fair for Candidates with Study Abroad Experience” organised by CFN. It was a great opportunity to meet many young candidates who are currently looking for a job. However, we couldn’t help noticing that in spite of temperatures exceeding 30 degrees, almost everyone wore a black suit and a white shirt – just like a uniform one has to wear to a career fair. This was quite different to what companies were after – while most companies were explicitly looking for innovative and unique talent, the way candidate dressed was far from innovative.
A survey by HR Research Institute also shows that 36% of companies recommend “Cool Biz casual down” to job hunting students. But in a real world, almost everyone still wears a black suit in this type of event to be able to conform and not stand out from the crowd.
It’s people’s mind-set, not society’s
One might ask why everyone wears a black suit to a careers fair. Discussions tend to be made on social pressure or norms carried out by authorities such as the government, companies or organizations. However, in reality, it is the people who end up limiting their own choices.
Japanese people are trained to be same as others in order not to disrupt the harmony. A good example is the school uniform system in schools. Nearly more than 99% of them set it a rule for students to wear school uniform. When growing up under this value and norm, people start avoiding doing different things than others. As a result, no matter how much the company recommended Cool Biz, people are unconsciously afraid of being different than others, which makes them keep wearing a black suit, a uniform, even though it is extremely hot outside.
Realization of a society that accepts innovation and diversity
As discussed in the previously published article “What makes an organisation a great place to work in Japan?”, innovation and uniqueness will be the key for companies to succeed in the coming generation.
Though Steve Jobs taught us that innovative thinking doesn’t require wearing an innovative dress – being afraid to be unique is a roadblock to being innovative. Once someone becomes comfortable and complacent, this could be the end of innovation.
A person’s dress sense reflects their personality and style. To enable the Japanese society to embrace diversity and move forward, people might have to push themselves to go beyond their comfort zone. Recently, Japan saw the “#Kutoo Movement” which covered how Japanese women experience pain from wearing high heels at work. Japan therefore needs to embrace change and transform their way of thinking through such activities.
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Everyone has a different view on the importance of dress code. For some, freedom to dress everyday as they like can be a great benefit when they choose a workplace.
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