‘Premium Friday’ campaign to give overworked Japanese more free time doesn’t appear to be working

Premium Friday was Japan’s latest bid to tackle two perennial problems – sluggish consumer spending and notoriously long working hours

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 01 August, 2017, 6:11pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 01 August, 2017, 9:56pm

Launched to considerable fanfare in February, Premium Friday is in danger of fizzling out as smaller companies realise they cannot afford to give their staff extra time off and workers choose to save their money rather than splash out.

One of a number of labour-related initiatives from the government, Premium Friday was designed to improve the work-life balance of the Japanese public and reduce stress from overwork. At the same time, bureaucrats hoped that more free time on one Friday every month would encourage people to shop, dine out, drink and date.

Their reasoning even stretched to a boost in the nation’s declining birth rate after romantic Friday evenings.

And while six months is insufficient time to determine whether that particular hope has been met, critics say Premium Friday cannot solve all the problems associated with Japan’s work culture.

“The concept is positive, but a couple of hours off on a Friday once a month is not nearly enough to achieve the big plans the government apparently had,” said Makoto Watanabe, an associate professor of communications and media at Hokkaido Bunkyo University.

“The public and the economy both need far more dramatic reforms to working lifestyles for there to be an appreciable effect.”

More effective reforms would include genuine equality in the workplace for women that enabled them to build careers at the same time as being able to have children, he said.

And the situation is arguably worse in the rural parts of Japan or smaller cities, said Watanabe, where regional economies are not able to grow at the same rate as in the cities and where young people and couples choose to save their money for the future rather than blowing it on Premium Friday.

“The economy is weak, wages have not risen significantly in a decade and, in many cases, people are worried about their jobs, so they are being careful with their spending,” he said.

After an initial burst of enthusiasm for Premium Friday, retailers say spending is tailing off. Operators of department stores and theme parks told Jiji Press that significant and prolonged spending has failed to materialise, although restaurants and bars say they have seen more customers.

Part of the problem, critics suggest, is that the additional half-day off comes at the end of the month, when many companies are attempting to wrap up their business and staff are too busy to clock out early.

People are worried about their jobs, so they are being careful with their spending
Makoto Watanabe

According to the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, just over 500 companies have signed up to the initiative and are actively encouraging their employees to leave early once a month. Most are larger companies that can absorb a temporary personnel shortage. Smaller firms are less able to grant employees that freedom.

Yet others are optimistic that the concept could catch on with workers and – gradually – change attitudes towards work here.

“I think that companies are taking it on board, although it must be pointed out that they are under strong pressure from the government,” said Martin Schulz, senior economist with the Fujitsu Research Institute.

“My company has signs up reminding people to take time off when Premium Friday comes around and I feel that the streets around the office are more crowded and busy on that day, so I would say it is having an effect,” he said.

“But I do believe that it will take a long time for attitudes towards work and workplace traditions to change completely.”