Japan PM Shinzo Abe calls time on long working hours

TOKYO (AFP) - Japan's famously long working hours will get a shakeup this summer, the government announced Friday, with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pushing early starts and European-style flexibility.

In a bid to better balance work and play for Japan's harried employees and to encourage them to spend time and money on private life and leisure, Tokyo mandarins want the working day to start - and end - earlier.

"Prime Minister Abe said we would take on changing the summertime lifestyle so that (people) will start working early in the morning and spend time with families and others in the evening," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters.

To begin with, central government officials will promote early starts and flexible finishes, Suga quoted the premier as saying.

"It is often said that long work hours in our country keep people from appreciating its benefits," Suga said.

"We believe reforming work styles is extremely important in letting people feel the benefits of 'Abenomics' and making our country's growth sustainable," he said, referring to the government's programme of economic reforms.

According to statistics from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the average Japanese put in 1,735 hours' work in 2013, far more than the 1,489 of France and Germany's tally of 1,388, but fewer than the 1,788 of the United States.

However, labour experts suspect Japan's true number is higher, with employees under-reporting overtime in a culture where presenteeism prevails.

Employees are sometimes expected to spend time with their colleagues in the evening, with often-alcohol fuelled bonding sessions practically compulsory.

The prime minister has told his ministers to talk to private companies about the push for change, in the hope of dragging them along with the initiative, Suga said, adding that summer had been chosen because of its longer daylight hours.

But, he said, the introduction of daylight saving was not currently on the table because of the huge latitude differences of the Japanese archipelago "Considering that, I think we need careful consideration at the moment towards ticking up our country's standard time in a uniform way," he said.

In summer months the sun rises in Tokyo at around 4.30am and sets by 7pm.

Japan has previously mulled an annual time change like that in Europe or North America where the clocks go forward in spring and back in the autumn, but has never tried it.

Opponents cite reasons ranging from the simple nuisance of changing time and the risk of inviting even longer work hours to the possibility of increasing home air-conditioning demand in the evening.