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Honda CEO Takanobu Ito dresses casually these days as the company takes part in Japan’s “Cool Biz” campaign to cut air-conditioning use.

Sweltering in Japanese offices

Thermostats set at 84 to save on energy costs

– The 90-degree heat outside Honda Motor’s office prompts health warnings from the national weather agency. Inside in an executive meeting room, it’s only four degrees cooler as President Takanobu Ito swelters.

“We are already used to being in this warm office,” Ito said, gesturing with his short-sleeved arms as a spokesman stirs the air with a paper fan. “We hope visitors understand the heat is part of our effort to save energy.”

The warm atmosphere in Honda’s 17-story Tokyo tower is now standard in offices participating in the government-led “Cool Biz” campaign to cut air-conditioning power use. Executive suites including Ito’s are no exception in a practice that has also become an expression of solidarity after last year’s nuclear power-plant disaster cost the country nearly its entire supply of atomic energy.

Cool Biz and conservation steps including a switch to light-emitting diode lamps have helped Japan cut energy use more than three times faster than the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development country average. In the six years since the campaign began, primary energy use has dropped 9.4 percent in Japan, compared with the 2.5 percent average decline for OECD countries, according to Bloomberg calculations using data from the BP Statistical Review of World Energy.

Nuclear disaster

Power-saving measures taken immediately after the nuclear disaster that followed last year’s earthquake, such as the idling of escalators and dimming of train-station lights, also contributed to 2011’s decline in consumption.

At Eaccess Ltd., a Tokyo-based wireless communications provider owned partly by a Goldman Sachs affiliate, the executive suite is even hotter this summer than last, Chairman Sachio Semmoto said.

“Our procurement department has been flooded with orders for mini-desk fans,” said Semmoto, who is taking longer morning runs so he feels more refreshed in his stuffy office.

At Japan Airlines’s Tokyo offices, President Yoshiharu Ueki shares an open office with nine other executives where the thermostat is set at 84 degrees Fahrenheit.

Ueki said he’s not really bothered by the heat but does carry a handkerchief that comes in handy to mop his brow.

Finance Minister Jun Azumi also works in a building kept at 84 degrees in Tokyo’s government office district. The ministry has installed automatically dimming lights that save power, making it harder to see the minister coming at a distance, wearing short sleeves and no tie.

Azumi’s counterpart, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, would probably insist on business attire, said Yasushi Hamao, a finance and economics professor at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business.

“I cannot imagine Geithner showing up with no tie,” Hamao said.

What about US?

He said a similar campaign would gain little traction in the United States, where executives would balk at working in an 82-degree Fahrenheit office. “They’ll say, ‘This decreases productivity.’ ”

They would have a point, according to research by the E.O. Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory at the University of California and 23 other studies used by Cornell University to generate a productivity calculator on its ergonomics website.

The calculator estimates that productivity at Cool Biz’s 82 degrees Fahrenheit would be almost 6 percent below levels at the ideal office temperature of 71 degrees.

Still, Japanese companies may be saving on their power bills.

Rakuten, the nation’s biggest Internet retailer, trimmed 40 percent off its electric power consumption last year from 2010 levels, said Akio Sugihara, senior executive officer at the Tokyo company.

Managers at the company’s headquarters in the capital set the thermostat at about 84 degrees and turn off air conditioning altogether after 6 p.m., unless employees apply for permission to work late, he said.

To ease the transition, the Internet retailer promoted a “Rakuten Hawaiian Summer” theme in its offices, posting announcements clarifying that sandals and shorts are acceptable office attire, Sugihara said. “We are allowing employees to dress down drastically.”

North Compton, who meets hundreds of executives a year as Japan director for Management Recruiters International, said he’s started getting emails warning him that the “Cool Biz” dress code allowing casual wear will be observed.

“You’re talking country managers, directors of major companies,” Compton said by phone. “They’re wearing polo shirts and chino pants. That was unspeakable even two years ago.”

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