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TOKYO (Reuters) - It's summer in Japan, which means shaved ice, cold noodles and parasols against the blinding sun - for men.
While women have used sun umbrellas, or "higasa," for centuries, power conservation and increasingly hot summers have sent sales of men's sun umbrellas sharply higher, with department stores across Japan scrambling for stocks.
"There's been a spike in demand for men's sun umbrellas of about three times since last summer," said Mayumi Mio, a spokeswoman at Takashimaya, a major Tokyo department store.
"Most of them buy it for business when they have to step outside of the office to go to a meeting. They feel that it's rude to show up to work or a meeting all sweaty and worn out from the heat."
White, natural skin has long been thought beautiful for Asian women, and Japanese men have also become increasingly skin-conscious in recent years. But the real jump in sales came last summer, after power cuts in the wake of the March 11 disaster prompted new ways to beat the heat.
According to the Environment Ministry, the combination of casual business attire such as short sleeves and no tie, and a sun umbrella, can cut up to 20% of heat stress, providing almost the same impact as walking under the shade cast by trees.
Kazuhiro Miyatake, the fourth generation to own and run the Shinsaibashi-Miyatake umbrella specialty store in the western city of Osaka, feels it's high time that men be able to carry parasols as well, if they want.
"It's your own portable shade you can carry around anywhere," he said.
While women's parasols run to lighter colors - pink, beige, white and red as well as black - those for men are more somber shades of blue, grey, and green. They also tend to be larger.
Prices can run from as little as 2,000 yen ($25.56) up to 17,000 yen ($220), depending on the design and the materials.
"I believe if there was a 'sun umbrella God', I'm positive it wouldn't discriminate between men and women," said Miyatake, who sells a thousand a year. "If men want to use sun umbrellas, they should be able to without shame."
Japan is currently in the grip of a heat wave that sent temperatures in areas around Tokyo to well over 37 degrees Celsius (99 degrees Fahrenheit) by 1:00 p.m. on Friday. ($1 = 78.2400 Japanese yen)
Reporting by Teppei Kasai, editing by Elaine Lies