Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Letter from Tokyo – May 2011

When my colleague Kai and I arrived in Tokyo at the end of May, 2011, I almost forgot to look for  after-effects of the earthquake and tsunami – from the windows of the express train from Narita Airport the rice paddies seemed so normal, poking up 6-inch green shoots in even rows inside their regular little square pools.

The first hint of change was at the little Family Mart shop down the street from my usual hotel in Shinju-ku.  The widened aisles and rearranged shelves could not  hide the lack of goods for sale – only four varieties of yogurt,  none of  Kai’s  favorite ice cream treats.  We wondered if the shop was facing hard times and going out of business;  as we walked back up the street  it hit us  that supply chain problems probably caused the scarcity, since the northeast area supplies much of the dairy and agricultural products for the rest of Japan.

The next morning we met our colleague Vivek for coffee at the nearby Starbucks.  As we watched the passing parade of salarymen exiting the subway and heading down the mall to their offices, Vivek pointed out another  more revolutionary  change.

“Do you notice something different? They’re not wearing ties.”

Once pointed out, the changed was startling – At least 50% of the young men going by had abandoned the formal uniform of dark suit, light shirt, and dark tie.

“It’s a government official request. They call it “Cool Biz”.  It’s to save the energy use for air conditioning since the reactors are out of commission.”

Environmentalists had tried for several summers  to popularize the “Cool Biz” approach to dressing but it never  caught on much, not even to the extent of getting the salarymen to switch to a light-colored suit.  But with the nuclear reactor problems,  going tie-less to help save energy is viewed as  almost a patriotic duty.

We found a third change as we headed for the escalator to get to the pedestrian bridge to our office across the street – it was shut down and arrows directed us to the adjacent stairs.  As part of the energy conservation effort, one in three of Tokyo’s escalators and elevators areshut down, unless there is no alternate access for the handicapped.

In our office we saw that the younger cubicle-bound salarymen had universally adopted the Cool Biz standard.  The managers and customer-facing salespeople showed resistance, however;  perhaps the tie is a badge of rank for them which cannot be easily discarded.

Tomii-san, my Japanese partner, told me that these and other conservation efforts have cut energy use in Tokyo by up to 40%.

For the short term, I thought this showed a heroic effort of unity in the face of disaster.  Then I began to wonder about possible long – term effects.

Will younger Japan go back to the formality of ties when the crisis is over?  Would the experiment with casual dress undermine the Japanese sense of formality and propriety over the long term?

Once  companies have realized the savings of reduced energy use, will they ever re- activate those escalators  and elevators? Will the smoothly automated Japanese way of life erode under the twin pressures of environmentalism and cost savings?

Thirty  years after the California drought of 1977, I still don’t let the water flow as I used to while I brush my teeth.  Will the conservation lessons of the Tsunami stick?

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