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Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is hoping to kick-start a summer of love by shifting work hours forward in order to free up time in the evenings for families to spend together.

But critics warn that the change in lifestyle could result in more overtime, health problems and disruptions to child care.

Public servants at central government ministries and agencies will see their working days moved forward by one or two hours over July and August in a bid to maximize efficiency over the longer summer daylight hours. Personnel will finish work one or two hours earlier than usual, while meetings will start no later than 4:15 p.m.

In a March 27 conference with Cabinet members, Abe said: “We will promote a national campaign to transform the summer lifestyle by starting work early and taking advantage of the longer summer days so that we can spend time in the evening with our family and friends.”

Employees in Japan, which does not practice daylight saving time, generally start work later than their counterparts in Germany and Britain. According to a survey by Hosei University professor Emiko Takeishi, only 7 percent of Japanese workers clock in before 8 a.m., compared with 47 percent in Germany and 21 percent in Britain.

Private companies are also making the switch, with business lobby Keidanren urging firms to follow the example of major trading house Itochu Corp., which formally adopted earlier working hours last May after a successful trial period.

Itochu reported a drop from 30 percent to 7 percent in the number of employees leaving the office after 8 p.m., and a four-hour monthly average reduction of overtime among regular staff and two hours among staffers who conduct paperwork and other logistic work.

“After work each day, the time I could spend with my family increased,” Itochu employee Keisuke Masuda was quoted as saying on the company’s website. “My children are still young, and being able to see them grow every day has made me very happy and given me a positive outlook.

“I go to bed earlier than before, and when I wake up in the morning I open my eyes feeling refreshed and start the working day feeling great.”

Automotive parts-maker Denso is preparing to begin its own three-month flex-time trial at its Aichi Prefecture headquarters from July, and even intends to provide free breakfasts each morning for the 13,000 employees involved in the scheme.

But not everyone is thrilled by the idea of an early start.

In a March Oricon Style survey of 1,200 men and women aged 20 to 40, around 70 percent thought the early-work system was a good idea. When asked how they would feel if the system was implemented in their own workplace, however, a fraction over half said they would not be pleased.

Among the fears expressed were: “I can only see my overtime increasing,” “I live far from my office so getting up will be difficult,” and “I have to take my kids to nursery in the morning, so all it means is that I’m going to be even busier.”

These concerns are shared by Koji Morioka, professor emeritus at Kansai University, who believes Japan’s long-ingrained culture of overwork must be addressed before a genuine work-life balance can be attained.

“With family life, there is a rhythm in terms of children’s waking time, going to school, mealtimes etc.,” Morioka said. “If that doesn’t change, and the only thing that changes is an earlier working time, it’s possible that the rhythm of family life can break down.

“A survey found that 16 percent of full-time workers don’t take any holidays at all in a year. Almost 3 out of every 10 people who work more than 60 hours a week — about 28 percent — don’t take a single day off. Those are the hard figures.

“Until that situation changes and people start taking paid holidays, just moving working hours and freeing up time in the evenings won’t have any real benefit on people’s health.”

According to a 2009 survey by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Japan gets the second-shortest night’s sleep of all 18 OECD countries. Japan’s average sleeping time of 470 minutes per night, one minute more than South Korea, stands in contrast to first-place France’s 530.

Akio Doteuchi, a senior researcher at NLI Research Institute, agrees Japan needs a change in lifestyle, and argues that a shift in work times can provide the catalyst.

“The plan’s objective is to start work early, reduce overtime and increase productivity,” he said. “But in reality, I don’t think overtime will drop and productivity will go up just by shifting working hours.

“I think the merit of the system is that by doing this, it will lead people to change their normal pattern of living. People will improve their lifestyles and values, and if that produces a more diverse workforce, then that’s a big merit.”

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