This season, a new fashion is spreading among Japanese men who are typically clad in dark suits and ties even in the heat of summer. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi revealed a fresh look early this month when he wore a blue kariyushi shirt, Okinawa's answer to the colourful Hawaiian shirt. Since then, this has been his garment of choice for cabinet briefings and other important meetings, telling his top officials to wear the same - except during official events featuring overseas guests.
Meanwhile, Toyota Motor chairman Hiroshi Okuda was among a dozen top Japanese businessmen who modelled on stage in an unprecedented tie-less fashion show last weekend at the Aichi World Expo. 'It feels as if you are walking with no clothes on,' he said, clad in a bamboo-fibre blue suit. He is among a growing number of civil servants, bureaucrats and businessmen adopting the government-led 'Cool Biz' no-tie approach.
It is all part of an energy-conservation initiative by the Environmental Agency. Environment Minister Yuriko Koike has called on people to join the national project - Team Minus 6 per cent - in which Tokyo has pledged to cut its greenhouse-gas emissions by this amount under the Kyoto Protocol. For example, she says, Japanese could use less energy by setting their air-conditioning unit's temperature no lower than 28 degrees Celsius between June and September, and by wearing something light - without a tie - to compensate. 'Japanese men have become overwrapped,' she said. 'With their ties on, it's like they have been competing to see who can best endure the heat.' Setting men free from their ties is seen as the first step in their liberation.
This is not the first time that Japan has tried to change the practice. A similar call to dress down was made in the late 1970s, after resource-poor Japan was hit by surging oil prices and was driven to cut energy consumption.
The then prime minister, Masayoshi Ohira, and his ministers led by example, donning newly designed short-sleeve business suits. Alas, the role models, as well as the suits themselves, held little public appeal.
This year's Cool Biz campaign could be worth 100 billion yen ($7.2 billion) in energy savings and clothing sales, according to one top economist.
Indeed, it seems that all the major men's clothing retailers, department stores and even supermarkets are jumping on the bandwagon, launching campaigns for their new ranges of casual attire. But the real heat has yet to arrive, and it will be interesting to see if this campaign can change the traditional grey, lifeless 'rat's look' of Japanese salarymen.