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.
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.