Premium Friday kicks off with free rides, bubbly

Japan launches campaign to get workers to leave work early and go shopping

TOKYO • There were free limo rides and champagne for some Tokyo workers who knocked off work earlier than usual yesterday, courtesy of downtown developers.

One railway operator also offered a special train ride with beer and bento boxes, while other employees who left work early got discounts on everything from matchmaking services to cancer checks.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took it down a notch by spending the afternoon at a Zen meditation temple, followed by a music concert.

Government spokesman Yoshihide Suga also knocked off work early, after giving a press briefing.

He said: "Unfortunately I have to hold this press conference at your request," he told reporters in Tokyo. "But as soon as I'm done with this, I'm going to doing something" for Premium Friday, he added.

CHANGING MINDSETS

We're hoping to boost spending by changing our lifestyle, the way we work and the way we think... It's hard for Japanese workers to take a day off so we need to create conditions in which everyone can take a holiday.

MR MASANAO UEDA, director of major business lobby Keidanren's Industrial Policy Bureau, on the philosophy behind Premium Friday.

Welcome to Japan's newest work-life balance campaign, which was launched yesterday.

Premium Friday is the country's latest bid to tackle two perennial problems - sluggish consumer spending and notoriously long working hours blamed for a national health crisis known as karoshi, or death from overwork.

The campaign calls on employers to let workers off at around 3pm on the last Friday of every month.

The issue of karoshi was highlighted in December last year, when the head of Japan's biggest advertising agency Dentsu resigned in response to the suicide of a young employee who regularly clocked more than 100 hours of overtime a month.

More than one in five Japanese companies have employees who work such long hours that they're at serious risk of death, according to a government survey released last October.

Japan's long working hours have also spawned the image of a weary salaryman who works all day, drinks with his boss all night, and is back at his desk early the next morning. The punishing work culture has softened over the decades, but putting in long hours is still seen as a sign of dedication at many Japanese firms.

"We're hoping to boost spending by changing our lifestyle, the way we work and the way we think," said Mr Masanao Ueda, director of business lobby group Keidanren's Industrial Policy Bureau.

"It's hard for Japanese workers to take a day off, so we need to create conditions in which everyone can take a holiday," he told AFP.

But it could be a hard sell. Many Japanese employees don't even take all of their regular annual leave. And only a small fraction of Japan's firms take part in the non-mandatory leave scheme.

Beyond the blue-chip firms - and some of them are lukewarm about the plan - it will be business as usual for most companies. According to a survey of 1,603 workers by Culture Convenience Club, just 3.4 per cent of respondents said their employer is on board.

Meanwhile, other firms are participating with strings attached: Employees must take paid leave, or use flextime.

Nomura Holdings will encourage employees to take a half-day's paid leave. Daiwa House Industry will give its staff the last Friday afternoon of every other month off - but they will have to start work an hour earlier on those days.

At Usen Corp, employees could leave at 3pm with full pay yesterday, but the music-service provider says it may not allow this again next month.

Tokyo's NLI Research Institute analyst Naoko Kuga said: "This campaign will not suddenly boost spending or stop long working hours."

BLOOMBERG, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 25, 2017, with the headline 'Premium Friday kicks off with free rides, bubbly'. Print Edition | Subscribe