A good portion of the population still spends its New Year’s and Golden Week holidays in traffic jams, so I have my doubts about the success of the Premium Friday campaign, which started on Feb. 24 and was concocted by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry to get more workers to take time off and stimulate consumption. METI encourages employers to allow their charges to leave work at 3 p.m. on the last Friday of the month without any reduction in wages in the hope that they’ll shop, eat out and travel. But the scheme is so timid that it’s difficult to believe it will achieve its goals.
The anonymous writer of Asahi Shimbun’s finance-related Keizai Kishodai column pointed out in the Feb. 18 edition that Japanese people only think of time off on a day-by-day basis, whereas Europeans tend to conceptualize it in week-long blocks, as “vacations.” METI is constricting the mind-set even further by delineating people’s free time in terms of hours.
The business magazine Toyo Keizai called METI’s plan an “idea that comes from no idea,” since Japan has never properly institutionalized the notion of leisure. The United States and European countries have more mature approaches to the matter because their governments began promoting time off from work before World War II. It wasn’t until the early 1990s, with the end of the high-asset bubble period, that the Japanese government mandated Saturdays off for civil servants, thus setting a precedent for the private sector to do the same thing.
Japan, however, then entered a long period of economic stagnation that eroded the old lifetime employment system and destabilized job security. Even when companies offer paid holidays, workers are reluctant to take them, fearing it will reflect poorly on job reviews.
The government, again, has to take the lead in Premium Friday, because it’s not certain how many companies will actually cooperate. In January, the Cabinet Office sent memos to all government offices telling them to let employees off early on Feb. 24, even though it’s the busiest time of the year for the central government.
The Asahi Shimbun asked several companies about their own plans. Home manufacturer Daiwa House said it was encouraging employees, including part-timers and contract workers, to leave early on Feb. 24. They could come into work at 8 a.m. instead of 9 a.m., and then go home at noon. For the rest of 2017, Daiwa House will only observe Premium Friday at the end of even-numbered months, and if it seems to work, then next year they may expand the plan to all 12 months. Since Daiwa House’s sales staff works on the weekends, they will have Premium Mondays.
In its own Feb. 20 report on the plan, Tokyo Shimbun also talked to Daiwa House and added that the company was warned in 2011 by the Labor Standards Bureau about making employees work overtime for no pay. In fact, almost all the media who covered the Premium Friday topic in the past month include comments from Daiwa House, which would seem to indicate that the company sees this as an opportunity for some positive PR after having been characterized as a business that exploits its workers.
Another company profiled by multiple media outlets is the trading firm Sumitomo Corp., which is recommending that its 5,426 employees take the whole day or a half-day off. What’s interesting about Daiwa House’s and Sumitomo Corp’s Premium Friday schemes is that they treat the time taken off as part of their paid leave systems.
Shimizu Corp. is doing the same thing, but allowing its workers to divide their unused paid vacations into hourly units that can be taken on a Premium Friday. Public relations firm Sunny Side Up told Tokyo Shimbun it would even give each of its approximately 150 employees ¥3,200 if they left work early on Feb. 24.
The coverage passes over those companies who are not with the program, which seems to be the majority of them. The Mainichi Shimbun on Feb. 18 pointed out that due to labor shortages, small and medium-size companies will likely not participate in the Premium Friday campaign. A representative of national business federation Keidanren told the newspaper that most companies are taking a “wait-and-see” posture, which probably means they have no intention of ever taking part.
The fact that Premium Friday was thought up by METI indicates that its main reason for being is to stimulate consumption, which is where the media can play more of a constructive role. Almost all the reports mention travel companies who are planning to take advantage of Premium Friday to get more people on the road and maybe extend the extra hours into three-day weekends. Japan Travel Bureau told the Asahi that in January it put on sale special weekend excursion packages with departures on Friday afternoons that offer late check-in times and late meals. Department stores and restaurant chains also made sure their Premium Friday offers got publicized in the coverage, but the two-pronged mission of the plan sets up a conundrum: For every employee who takes time off for the purposes of shopping or travel, there’s another who has to work in order to serve those purposes.
Another uniform aspect of the coverage is the economic effectiveness of the Premium Friday plan. Dai-ichi Life Research Institute is cited by every outlet as saying that spending on each Premium Friday will amount to ¥123.6 billion, but that calculation is based on the belief that “most” workers in the country will leave their places of employment at 3 p.m. If only “major companies” take advantage of the plan, which is the likely scenario, the economic effectiveness is only ¥13.5 billion.
According to the Nihon Keizai Shimbun, if all workers who are entitled to paid holidays actually took them in full, the economic effectiveness would be ¥16 trillion a year, so Premium Friday is not only a piecemeal solution to the overwork problem, but rather measly in terms of stimulating consumption. Getting everyone to take the paid holidays they are entitled to, however, will require nothing short of a revolution in attitudes.