Fun in Japan on ‘Premium Friday’

Tell most Westerners their boss wants them to leave work early on a Friday, go out to have some fun, get an early start to the weekend, spend up, maybe enjoy a few drinks and nibbles, and you won’t see them for dust.

Are Japanese so different? Clearly, the Ministry of Industry Trade and Economy (METI) didn’t  think so.

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Earlier this year, someone in the Japanese government had a lightbulb moment: the key to stimulating more consumer spending was to officially orchestrate and promote a bit more ‘group fun’.

Cultural experts will tell you Japan is one of the most group-oriented societies in the world. Surely then, a group-based approach to fun should be just as efficient and effective as the highly organised corporate culture of the group-based Japanese workplace?

"Normally so amenable to complying with social directives, this time even the Japanese were just too tired for group fun on Premium Friday." Elizabeth Masamune, Managing Director of @Asia Associates Japan

So on February 24 ‘Premium Friday’ was officially launched by METI. A directive was to be given to the workers of all participating companies (130 on the launch day) to leave the office no later than 3.30pm on the last Friday of each month - herein known as ‘Premium Friday’.

But the yellow smiley face of the Premium Friday campaign logo masks the reality of workplace culture in Japan and the desperate need for reform in an era where masses of exhausted workers, working overtime well beyond legal limits - and high-profile cases of karoshi (death from overwork) remain a blight on the landscape.

It’s no wonder the yellow smiley face of Premium Friday had difficulty gaining traction.

Enthusiasm

The retail and travel sector enthusiastically came to the party on the announcement of the move, with all sorts of new ideas and special promotions offered.

In typical Japanese style, and with the backing of the Keidanren (the paramount business lobby), the unique combination of political, bureaucratic, and private sector hand-in-glove coordination – long known as the Iron Triangle - was mobilised to ensure that fun would be had. And more importantly, money would be spent.

The program kicked off with fanfare and a special yellow logo to be used by participating retailers and merchants just to make sure everyone remembered they were supposed to be out there doing their bit.

The METI chief proudly announced he was giving his secretaries orders not to schedule any appointments after 3pm. Dai-ichi Life Research forecast if most workers participated, even those at smaller and private firms, consumption on each Premium Friday would rise by a staggering ¥124 billion ($US1.1 billion).

To promote the campaign, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe left the office early for a Zen meditation session at a Tokyo temple at 3:30pm, followed by a concert in Ueno and a museum visit.

Many companies in the retail, hotel, and travel sector were hoping company workers, with official permission to let their hair down a bit, would embrace the opportunity to spoil themselves over a long weekend with some extra shopping or perhaps a trip to an onsen.

Japan’s largest airline, All Nippon Airways, offered 1,000 people up to a ¥10,000 discount for domestic flights scheduled to depart on Premium Friday. East Japan Railway Co offered trips to Tochigi, Nagano, Fukushima or Miyagi prefectures on luxury Gran Class shinkansen trains, hoping to reinvigorate regional communities and promote local delicacies.

For those who couldn’t leave home, there were alternatives such as a short ride in a limousine with a glass of strawberry-dipped champagne around Tokyo’s Nihonbashi and Marunouchi districts.

The trouble is, it’s always a challenge to order an improvement in morale. Mandating mirth has proved just as fraught.

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Workplace culture

In Japan, the workplace culture which spawns and supports overworking practices is also a humanitarian issue in one of the world’s most sophisticated and advanced economies.

The acute labour shortage driven by Japan’s ageing and shrinking population and resistance to importing labour from other countries is further exacerbating the problem.

The Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare just released the results of a 2016 survey indicating 10,772 of 23,915 companies investigated for suspected violations of the labour law were in fact forcing their employees to work overtime.

This was a marked increase over 2015 where the number of similar findings was roughly 5,775. More than 7,890 companies had workers logging more than 80 hours of overtime per month – a level considered to be the threshold for death by karoshi – and in the worst cases 236 businesses had workers doing more than 200 hours of overtime in a month.

Imposed holidays seem to be one of the only ways to overcome the contradiction between the message of ‘less work’ employers are officially sending their workers and the reality of what workers themselves believe is required of them in practice - by their employers, supervisors and peers alike.

Japan has 16 annual public holidays, more than any other country in the Group of Eight and twice as many as observed in the UK. The Japanese government has created two new ones in recent years Marine Day (July 7) and Mountain Day (August 11), as part of an effort to force the Japanese public, who generally take less than half of their annual leave entitlements, to rest.

It is all very well intentioned but as Peter Drucker famously said, culture eats strategy for breakfast. He was speaking about how a company operates but in Japan the aphorism resonates far more widely.

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Traction

With Premium Friday, takeup was slow. The number of participating companies has risen to 500 but the percentage of workers departing work early in Tokyo after the first month was only 3.7 per cent and has remained stagnant.

Disappointed retailers and hoteliers are running out of new ideas for Premium Friday promotions and six months after its launch, Premium Friday is in danger of being phased out.

A friend of mine working for one of Japan’s large beverage giants summed it up well: “Now that we are forced out of the office on one of our busiest days at the end of the month by 3.30 pm, we don’t feel in the mood to have a good time and just end up having to work more overtime during the week to make up for it.”

At the end of the day, human nature prevails.  People can be ordered to work but they can’t be ordered to enjoy themselves.

Normally so amenable to complying with social directives, this time even the Japanese were just too tired for Group Fun on Premium Friday.

The real challenge in Japan cannot be so easily addressed. Slogans and smiley faces are not enough. It is about the ever-widening divide between the personal dreams and social aspirations of a generation of Japanese who have come to want more meaning in their lives and the population crisis already producing a productivity crunch. 

The material affluence and the creature comforts of life in Japan mask lingering fear about the future.  Labour market upheaval is partly to blame.

As ever more people have been transferred to the temporary or contract worker segment of the labour force, increasing numbers of Japanese cite financial instability as the primary reason they are unable to commit to marriage and to raising a family.

A recent survey of Japanese millennials found job security, preferably lifetime, was their number one employment consideration.

Unwilling to risk a coveted slot as a permanent employee for a potentially more lucrative contract-based position elsewhere, their strong preference for security over higher wages continues to perpetuate a long-standing vicious cycle in Japan.

A solid shot of hope in what the future might hold is critical to solving the problems of Japan’s shrinking population of over-worked Japanese consumers. Group fun on Premium Friday simply wasn’t up to such an important, and personal, task. 

Elizabeth Masamune is a former Senior Trade Commissioner for Austrade in North Asia. She is currently Managing Director of @Asia Associates Japan Inc, specialising in building capability in cultural intelligence and supporting women in Asian business.

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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