'Premium Friday' tackles Japan's overwork culture

Companies encouraged to let employees leave early for the weekend...

'Premium Friday' tackles Japan's overwork culture

Office workers of Tokyo area toast during a event of "Premium Friday" (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara)

It's a country famed for its dedication to work, with a language that even has its own word - karōshi - for stress or starvation-induced death on the job, but Japan's government made its first big push today to get employers to ease up on their staff.

The inaugural "Premium Friday" encouraged businesses to shut up shop early and give their employees a half-day, with the hope that it becomes a popular feature of every last Friday of the month.

Not only that, they are being encouraged to spend their newfound free time out and about – the secondary motive of the campaign being to boost sluggish consumer spending in the economy.

Major companies such as Mitsubishi Motors, Suntory Holdings and SoftBank Group were among the approximately 130 firms who signed up for the initiative, but that only represents a drop in the ocean when it comes to Japanese business. 

A survey of 6,750 workers in their 20s and 50s conducted by marketing research firm Intage earlier this month found that only 2.5% of employers planned to encourage them to leave early.

Ayako Sera, a market strategist with Sumitomo Mitsui Trust Bank in Tokyo, told Bloomberg:

"I haven’t heard a thing about a Premium Friday at my workplace.

"I suspect the situation will be the same for the vast majority of firms in Japan. Trying to change how people work isn’t a bad idea, but it’ll take time.”

“It will take time for Premium Friday to take root,” Japan's chief cabinet secretary Yoshihide Suga told a news conference.

“It’s extremely important for both the government and the private sector to create an atmosphere [where people can leave their jobs early]."

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Honolulu, December 2016. (AP Photo/Marco Garcia) 

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was one worker getting in on the action. Leading by example, he called it a day early to attend a Zen meditation session in a Tokyo temple at 3.30pm, and was then heading for the cultural district of Ueno for a trip to a museum and concert.

SMBC Nikko Securities has forecasst that Premium Friday could boost consumption by as much as 63.5 billion yen (€535 million) annually.

Alongside Premium Friday, Abe has been placing an emphasis on labour reforms to tackle the long working hours that are typical in his country's offices.

There has been some uptake, with Reuters reporting that the headquarters of Mitsui Home Co now blares out the trumpets of Rocky's 'Gonna Fly Now' every day at 6pm, Saints-Works Corporation has one no-overtime day per month, while the likes of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government turns the lights of at 8pm to make people leave.

Leasing company Orix even plans to offer employees up to 50,000 yen if they use at least five vacation days in a row.

The spotlight has been on Japan's problem with overworking in recent months, following the death of a young woman at leading advertising agency Dentsu. She ended her own life after working over 100 hours of overtime in a month.