National

'Premium Friday' drive kicks off to energize weary workers, feeble economy

by Reiji Yoshida

Staff Writer

The government-backed “Premium Friday” campaign kicked off on Friday with around 130 participating firms across the country encouraging employees to leave work early on the last Friday of each month.

The government launched the initiative to boost weak consumer spending as it struggles to halt Japan’s persistent deflation. The campaign urges people to leave worker earlier by either taking paid hours off or using a flextime program.

Whether the campaign will succeed remains to be seen, given Japan’s notorious workaholic nature. Many economists are skeptical.

The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry said it was aware that at least 130 firms planned to participate in Premium Friday. But METI has yet to get details about how early they would actually let them leave.

The major companies include SoftBank Group, Mitsubishi Motors Corp., Sumitomo Corp., Suntory Holdings Ltd. and Shimizu Corp.

In the meantime, marketing research firm Intage Inc. conducted a related survey on the campaign earlier this month that covered 6,750 full-time workers in their 20s and 50s in Tokyo, Kanagawa, Chiba and Saitama prefectures.

It found only 2.5 percent of the respondents said their employers planned to encourage them to leave early on the last Friday of each month.

“It will take time for Premium Friday to take root,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a news conference the same day.

“It’s extremely important for both the government and the private sector to create an atmosphere” where workers can leave early, Suga said.

To promote the campaign, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe left the office early for a Zen meditation session at a Tokyo temple at 3:30 p.m.

He was later set to go Ueno to attend a concert and take in a museum.

“It is hoped that this effort will be a trigger to help change the deflation mindset,” Suga said.

Weak consumption remains a headache for Abe. Consumer spending shrank in the  October-December quarter for the first time in four quarters.

The government is also spearheading labor reforms to reduce the long working hours rampant at many Japanese firms to facilitate the effort boost consumption.

Meanwhile, many retailers and service-sector firms are trying to capitalize on the Premium Friday campaign by calling on consumers to spend more.

As of Friday, 3,930 firms and organizations had registered to use the official logo designed by the Premium Friday committee, the industry ministry said.

An analysis by SMBC Nikko Securities Inc. published on Feb. 17 says the campaign will have contradictory effects — one that boosts gross domestic product by expanding consumption and improved productivity, and one that reduces GDP by reducing working hours.

The expected increase in consumption alone is to boost GDP by an estimated ¥63.5 billion a year at the most, the securities firm said.

But the report also said the results might be “disappointing” in the short term, in light of two separate consumer surveys that both suggest that about 60 percent of the respondents will simply use the campaign to relax at home.

“There is a possibility that consumption will not be expanded considerably,” the report said.