Unsuited: can traditional Japanese companies adapt to new casual clothing trends?

Salarymen are ditching their suits in favour of more comfortable outfits, but is swapping shoes for trainers going a step too far?

PUBLISHED : Monday, 30 April, 2018, 3:00pm
UPDATED : Monday, 30 April, 2018, 10:53pm

The suit, tie and burnished leather shoes have long been the accepted uniform of Japan’s legions of hard-working salarymen. But office workers’ attire here is undergoing a seismic shift.

The government launched its “Cool Biz” campaign in 2006, encouraging office workers to shrug off their jackets and loosen their ties during the sweltering summer months. It took a while to catch on at the nation’s more traditional companies, but it has gradually become acceptable.

Now, however, the government and clothing companies are taking aim at the last remaining bastion of the salaryman’s uniform. They are calling for employees to swap the leather shoes for trainers.

The Japan Sports Agency has begun its “in-sneaker commuting” campaign to try to get workers to wear running shoes to the office. The aim is to convince employees – particularly those in their early 20s to late 40s – of the importance of getting more exercise.

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The campaign suggests that people get off their trains a stop or two before the closest station to their office and walk the rest of the way as an invigorating start to the day. Others are issuing staff with pedometers and holding competitions for the person who walks the most steps in a week or introducing a system where a certain number of steps will earn points that can be used to obtain rewards.

Companies are going along with the plan, with Asahi Soft Drinks in January asking staff to wear running shoes on the way to work and around the office. The Tokyu conglomerate, which does everything from railways to retail, said it began a similar campaign back in 2016.

“If this policy can help to make people fitter because they are walking more, then it has to be a good thing and I am sure that the Japanese government hopes it is effective because they are looking for ways to reduce health spending,” said Makoto Watanabe, an associate professor of communications and media at Hokkaido Bunkyo University. 

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“The problem is going to come when this comes up against the more traditional CEOs and boards at some of the companies here,” he said. “They may have put up with staff taking off their jackets and rolling up their sleeves in the summer months, but wearing running shoes to the office is likely to strike some of them as being extremely laid back and American.

“Even though they talk about ‘globalisation’ and becoming more international in their outlook, but it may be a step too far for some firms,” said Watanabe, adding that in his job he can largely avoid wearing a suit, tie and smart shoes.

“I feel much more comfortable and I think I am therefore better at my job,” he said. “I read a study once that said that people who have to wear a suit for work are more prone to heart attacks. That was enough to convince me.”