How many times have you been jolted awake in summer at 4:30 a.m. by rays of sunlight streaming through your flimsy curtains? Conversely, how many sunsets have you missed because you’ve been stuck in an office until it’s officially time to go home?
The underlying issue behind the above questions comes down to one thing: daylight saving time or, more accurately, the country’s reluctance to adopt the system.
Japan does not currently practice daylight savings. The concept has been raised on several occasions in the past few decades without attracting universal support. More recently, private companies as well as central and local governments have introduced their own versions of a “summer shift,” encouraging employees to start earlier in the morning so that they can clock out earlier in the evening.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe raised the proposal in a policy speech in February 2015, calling on organizations to promote yū-katsu (meaningful evening activities).
“A new national campaign will be launched to transform summer lifestyles,” he pledged. “During the summer, when the days are long, people will be able to go to work earlier in the morning and enjoy time with family and friends in the evening.”
As a result, the Abe administration last year urged thousands of civil servants nationwide to arrive an hour or two earlier than usual from the beginning of July to the end of August, using the opportunity to spend some quality time in the evening outside of the office.
Leading by example, Abe finished his day early on July 1, the day the program was launched, and went to the National Museum of Western Art in Tokyo’s Ueno district to see an exhibition titled “Bordeaux: Port de la Lune.” Speaking to reporters after his trip to the museum, Abe could see the benefits of yū-katsu.
“I would truly like everyone to make full use of yū-katsu to enjoy life, such as by having more relaxed time to spend with family and friends, or enjoying hobbies and following one’s personal interests,” Abe said. “I also hope that yū-katsu will help change the custom of working long hours.”
According to the Cabinet Bureau of Personnel Affairs, more than 220,000 civil servants nationwide participated in Abe’s yū-katsu program in 2015, using 18.6 days on average over the two months. Of those who came in early, an average of 61 percent left work on time.
In 2015, 13 out of 23 central administrative institutions reported a decrease in the amount of overtime in July and August against the previous year. The remaining institutions, however, reported either the same amount or an increase in overtime in at least one of the months.
Meanwhile, a survey taken by Japan Federation of National Public Service Employees’ Unions offered less flattering findings. Seventy percent of 4,853 respondents nationwide said that overtime is continuing, while just 16 percent preferred to see the summer schedule continue.
Chikara Shimasaki, secretary-general of the Labor Lawyers Association of Japan, says Abe’s proposed summer program lacked substance.
“In most cases, people’s jobs are affected by others around them,” Shimasaki says. “They can’t leave work on their own accord in the same way as the bureaucrats who have to deal with the bills being deliberated in the Diet. They may come in early but are forced to stay late. As a result, this type of early morning shift just results in longer work hours.”
Daylight saving time is the practice of advancing clocks during summer months by an hour so that evening daylight is extended.
New Zealand entomologist George Hudson first proposed the idea of daylight savings in 1895, but it wasn’t adopted by a country nationwide until Germany initiated it in 1916 in an attempt to conserve coal during World War I.
A number of European countries, including Britain, soon followed suit. The United States also adopted the program in 1918 but it was abolished a year later after being unpopular with the public. These days, however, most American states have daylight saving time.
The timing of daylight saving differs slightly depending on the country or continent. In the U.S., for example, daylight saving time begins at 2 a.m. on the second Sunday in March and ends on the first Sunday in November. In Europe, daylight saving time starts at 1 a.m. on the last Sunday of March and ends on the last Sunday in October.
Daylight saving time is not completely new to Japan. The country adopted it over four summers between 1948 and 1951 during the Allied Occupation before it was abolished in 1952.
Media reports at the time suggest that daylight saving was not particularly popular. A number of workers complained of negative health effects and longer work hours, while restaurants and cafes reported fewer customers.
Hidetoshi Nakagami, CEO of Jukankyo Research Institute and an expert on daylight saving time, says times have changed since the postwar days.
“Japan was desperate to recover from the war back in those days, trying to save as much electricity as possible for production,” Nakagami says. “And most households didn’t have electric goods, so the main objective was to save electricity for lighting and use the daylight.”
Nakagami began researching daylight saving time more than 25 years ago and has served on a number of government panels that were created to explore the possibility of conserving energy by advancing clocks in summer.
In doing so, Nakagami has examined the impact that daylight saving time would have on such things as electricity consumption, recreational activities and advertising.
In each case, his research models have consistently predicted that household electricity consumption would rise if daylight saving time was to be introduced.
However, he says, total energy consumption was forecast to decline, adding that it was important to examine a wide range of categories in order to understand the broader impact that advancing clocks in summer would produce.
According to the most recent data Nakagami compiled for the Environment Ministry in 2013, the introduction of daylight saving time in 2008 would have reduced carbon dioxide emissions by 1.51 million tons and saved 910,000 kiloliters of crude oil annually. Nationwide greenhouse gas emissions totalled 1.28 billion tons in 2008.
“Whether you think saving electricity consumption by 1 or 2 percent is significant or not depends on how you look at it,” Nakagami says. “Those opposed to daylight saving time will always claim that such amounts are too small to make a difference. However, it’s virtually impossible to cut domestic energy consumption by 10 percent in one fell swoop. There is no single solution — we need to take action in small steps across the board.”
Debate over health
Japan, South Korea and Iceland are the only members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development that currently do not follow daylight saving time. South Korea is reportedly weighing whether or not to introduce the system possibly as early as this year.
Over the past couple of decades, lawmakers in Japan have sporadically tried to reintroduce daylight saving time without much success. In 1995, a nonpartisan group of Upper House lawmakers looked into the issue, while more than 100 lawmakers from both houses formed a group to promote the adoption of daylight saving time in 2004.
A 2007 survey showed that 57 percent of the general public supported the introduction of daylight saving time, with the majority believing it would help conserve energy. In contrast, 29 percent opposed the system, with many unconvinced that the system would change their evening activities.
In 2008, a group of lawmakers drafted a daylight savings bill that was almost put before the Diet, while the administration of former Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda included the introduction of daylight savings in its Basic Policy on Economic and Fiscal Management and Reform that same year.
Debate briefly flared up again in the immediate wake of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami disaster, with utilities trying to conserve power consumption after activity at nuclear reactors nationwide was suspended.
And with the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and Paralympics looming, former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, who is now head of the organizing committee, has expressed interest in introducing daylight saving time to protect athletes from heat stroke during the country’s hot and humid summer.
However, opposition to making adjustments to time has persisted. The dairy industry has lobbied against such changes, arguing that it is impossible for farmers to adjust their clocks in summer because of their animals’ inflexible milking schedules.
More alarmingly, a number of experts have suggested that advancing clocks in summer has negative consequences on health.
According to the Japanese Society of Sleep Research, daylight saving time affects our biological rhythm, as well as the quality and quantity of sleep.
Jun Kohyama, CEO of Tokyo Bay Urayasu Ichikawa Medical Center and an expert on sleep, says that artificially shifting clocks forward or backward by an hour has a major impact on our body.
Studies in countries that implement daylight saving time show that more people suffer heart attacks following an adjustment in time, Kohyama says. What’s more, studies have found that adjustments typically correspond with a rise in the number of car accidents.
It takes three to four weeks for the human body to adjust to shifts in time, Kohyama says.
“Shifting the clock by an hour has enormous consequences,” Kohyama says. “The human body can adjust to gradual time changes but it’s more difficult when time is adjusted out of the blue. Our biological clocks maintain a 24-hour cycle and so I have doubts about adjusting it artificially.”
South Korea, Japan and Norway sat at the bottom of a list of OECD countries in terms of average sleeping hours, according to the organization’s Society at a Glance 2009.
Kohyama says that people who fail to get enough sleep are at risk of such things as obesity, cerebrovascular disease and depression.
Kohyama also expresses concern over Abe’s yū-katsu program, saying that people will lose even more sleep if it continues.
“The prime minister’s yū-katsu program is pushing people to get to work early so that they can finish early and go out and have fun,” Kohyama says. “It’s absurd — he’s basically telling people who aren’t getting enough sleep to begin with to have even less. A lack of sleep negatively affects both the human mind and body.”
Japan is notorious for its long working hours, which not only prevents employees from having a life outside the office but also affects family life, especially for women who have children.
In recent years, a number of firms have started implementing their own summer shifts to conserve electricity and create an environment so their employees can enjoy time outside of the office during the working week.
Trading firm Itochu Corp. was one of the first private sector companies to give its employees the opportunity to enjoy longer daylight hours in summer, introducing early morning shifts in 2013 on an experimental basis
Meanwhile, general insurance company Sompo Japan Nipponkoa Insurance Inc. introduced an early morning shift between July 1 and Oct. 31 last year, encouraging its estimated 27,000 employees in Japan to arrive at work before 8 a.m. and leave by 7 p.m. at the latest.
Naoki Inoue, section manager of Sompo Japan Nipponkoa’s Human Capital Department, says the introduction of a summer shift was part of a bigger push to create a diverse working environment to meet the needs of the company’s various employees — especially female employees, which make up more than half of all staff.
Although the company has yet to reach a final decision on whether it will offer the summer shift this year, Inoue says the results were generally positive and the company discovered that it also cut overtime by about 10 percent.
One Sompo Japan Nipponkoa employee who was happy to work the early morning shift was Shunsuke Shibao, a senior deputy manager of the company’s Global Business Planning Department. Shibao used to work from 8:30 a.m. to 9 or 10 o’clock in the evening, as he was required to handle business with people worldwide. Last summer, he started working from around 7 a.m. each day.
Shibao recalls initially feeling uncomfortable with the summer shift because few of his fellow employees knew that he was in the office so early.
However, Shibao found that his overall efficiency improved and it became easier for him to clock out earlier once all his duties for the day had been completed.
Shibao even began taking English lessons after work, something he had always wanted to do.
In fact, he liked his early morning shift so much that he has been continuing to come in early ever since, and continues to go to take English lessons after work.
“I think it’s great the company is supporting diverse working environments by giving employees options,” Shibao says. “I have been able to use my time efficiently — both during and outside work.”
A few of Shibao’s colleagues also signed up for the summer program, but the earlier schedule didn’t suit everyone.
“The early morning shift works for me, but people with children can’t come any earlier because day care centers aren’t open early enough,” Shibao says. “Some people are able to benefit from this system but others can’t work an earlier shift due to their personal circumstances.”
Although firmly entrenched in their respective corners, opponents and supporters of daylight savings appear to agree on one thing: the lack of uniformity doesn’t benefit all workers.
Jukankyo Research Institute’s Nakagami says the lack of a uniform rule creates a “double standard” for those within the summer framework and those outside.
Social services at public institutions such as municipal ward offices won’t match users’ needs, Nakagami explains.
Although Abe did not mention yū-katsu in his policy speech at the beginning of this year’s ordinary Diet session, a government official says that plans to adopt early morning shifts again this summer should be finalized by the end of April.
Nakagami, however, hopes daylight saving time will eventually be introduced nationally in order to give people an opportunity to think about energy conservation.
“Daylight saving time is pointless unless everyone participates,” Nakagami says. “Introducing daylight savings can help raise awareness that we are trying to save electricity for the Earth.”
Kaori Kubo contributed to this report.