Affairs

Government

Early to bed, early to rise…— Japan

Preface

Japan’s government has launched a campaign to encourage government employees to finish at the office earlier than usual, but will it work?

Japan, Shinzo Abe, Work-life balance

27 July 2015

It’s been nearly a month since Japanese government employees started leaving the office early for yu-katsu.

The term, which translates as “evening activities”, refers to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s campaign to shift the workday an hour or two earlier during July and August for some 220,000 public servants.

The idea is straightforward: get to the office earlier than usual and you can take advantage of the long summer days and have time for yourself before the sun sets. (Unlike some other countries, Japan doesn’t do daylight saving.)

So has this experiment forced people to work less and have a bit more fun?

For some, yes. But it hasn’t had the immediate and widespread support that Abe seems to have been hoping for. On the first day of the two-month trial, only about 65 per cent of those who are eligible left early.

Such are the pressures of the typical office that work-life balance – a running theme in Japan for the past decade – still remains elusive to the Japanese salaryman.

This is a country where workers have to be told that it’s OK not to be excessively devoted to the job. One of the objectives of yu-katsu is to cut back on overtime, a big hurdle for the government, which is trying to attract more women to the work force.

Statistics show that Japanese spend more hours in the office than workers in other developed countries and they take fewer holidays. About 22.3 per cent of Japanese workers toil away for 50 hours or more each week, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. That beats the 12.7 per cent of workers who do so in Britain, 11.3 percent in the US and 8.2 per cent in France.

Critics say that it’s too much to expect a sudden change to the salaryman’s habit of putting in long hours at the office. Even if government workers aren’t completely embracing yu-katsu, corporate Japan is warming to the idea. Trading company Mitsubishi, railway operator Tokyu and tech firm Canon are among those that have started their own versions. That’s led some department stores and restaurants to offer specials to the early evening crowd.

At the beginning of July, Abe himself had wanted to set the example by leaving work early and visiting a museum. Since then, he’s been tied up trying to get through his policy during an extended parliamentary session. Last Friday, he did manage to finish at 16.30 and meditate for an hour at a Zen Buddhist temple with a fellow ruling party lawmaker. It was only the second time he had cut short his official duties since the first day of the yu-katsu campaign. Bringing change is easier said than done, it seems.

Kenji Hall is Monocle’s Asia editor at large.

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