Wed, Jul 20, 2011 - Page 5 News List

FEATURE: ‘Air-conditioned clothes’ help Japan beat the heat

AFP, TODA, JAPAN

Kuchofuku president Hiroshi Ichigaya and an employee display jackets that have cooling fans on the back at the firm’s headquarters in Toda, Japan, on July 12.

Photo: AFP

As jackets go, it looks far from fashionable, but its Japanese maker cannot meet sky-rocketing demand for “air conditioned” coats with built-in fans.

Kuchofuku Co — whose name literally means “air-conditioned clothing” — has seen orders soar amid power shortages in Japan after the devastating March 11 earthquake and tsunami.

As parts of the nation sweat out an uncomfortable summer shackled by restrictions on electricity use, demand has grown for goods that provide guilt-free respite from the unrelenting summer heat. Two electric fans in the jacket can be controlled to draw air in at different speeds, giving the garment a puffed-up look. However, this has not deterred those happy to be cool rather than “hot” when it comes to fashion.

“I work in a very hot place and have to wear long sleeved outfits, so I came over to buy this to stay cool and to prevent heat stroke,” said Ryo Igarashi, 33, as he left the Kuchofuku office after buying an air-conditioned jacket.

Igarashi said the clothing offers him relief at hot construction sites where he, coincidentally, installs air conditioners in buildings. Nearly 1,000 companies in Japan use Kuchofuku.

Among its other products, the company also sells air-conditioned cushions and mattresses that use Kuchofuku’s patented plastic mesh system that allows air to circulate while supporting weight. The products have taken on extra significance since the closure of the tsunami-crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant and a government decree obliging big companies in the Tokyo and Tohoku regions to reduce power usage by 15 percent to avoid blackouts.

Initiatives such as “Super Cool Biz” encourage employees to ditch jackets and ties and turn down air conditioning, while the power--saving drive has also sparked demand for cooling gadgets. Imports of electrical fans through Tokyo port hit a record high in May.

The fans in the Kuchofuku jacket are connected to a lithium-ion battery pack that lasts for 11 hours on a single charge, consuming only a fraction of the power used by conventional air-conditioning, company president Hiroshi Ichigaya said.

Ichigaya says that his clothing offers a counter-intuitive solution: By wearing more, a person can feel cooler than if baring it all.

Up to 20 liters per second of air circulates throughout the jacket and escapes through the collar and cuffs, drying off sweat and cooling down the wearer.

The idea struck Ichigaya when he was trying to invent an air conditioner that would use little electricity.

“It came to me that we don’t need to cool the entire room, just as long as people in it feel cool,” he said.

Kuchofuku, first launched in 2004, typically draws demand from factories and construction sites, but the company has orders from office workers and housewives.

A standard air-conditioned jacket sells for about ¥11,000 (US$140), with others priced higher.

A central government official recently approached the company to buy 500,000 jackets, but Ichigaya said the company was unable to boost production in time.

The company will sell a total of 40,000 jackets, cushions and other air-cooled products this year, double last year’s figure, Ichigaya said.

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