TOKYO, Feb. 24 (Xinhua) -- A scheme launched by the Japanese government encouraging employers to allow their staff to leave work early once a month began here Friday to mixed reviews from both managers and workers.
The idea called "Premium Friday" is aimed at reducing excessive overtime prevalent in Japan, tackling the phenomenon known here as "karoshi," or death from overwork, as well as boosting the economy by giving workers the freedom to spend more on a Friday night, ahead of the weekend.
On the last Friday of the month, employees are being asked to let their employees leave work earlier than usual, at around 3:00 p.m., and on the inaugural "Premium Friday" local businesses have been holding events and offering packages to encourage participation.
Some travel agencies, for example, are offering special two-night deals for people leaving their offices early and a number of department stores are offering special "Premium Friday" bargains on goods.
Restaurants are offering extended happy hours to workers to boost sales and some bars are hoping to lure more punters with special craft beer tasting events.
With "Premium Friday" being backed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's administration, as well as major business lobbies in Japan, Abe and some Cabinet members have made it known that they, at least for time being, will follow their own initiative.
Abe is reportedly leaving parliament early as the Diet session was purposely cut short Friday, to visit a temple and relax with some meditation and health minister Yasuhisa Shiozaki said he'd have dinner at a restaurant with his friends and foot the bill himself.
Agriculture minister Yuji Yamamoto will also be opting for some Friday afternoon mediation, he said.
But while the campaign is expected to bolster Japan's sluggish consumer spending, which accounts for 60 percent of Japan's GDP, by as much as 63.5 billion yen (560 billion U.S. dollars) per year, not all companies and workers were thrilled with the idea.
"We work on Saturdays and have to take potential clients to view properties they're interested in, as they can't do viewings on weekdays because they're at work," Shinya Akiyama, who works for a real estate agent, told Xinhua.
"On Friday afternoon and evenings, we have a lot of administrative duties to take care of in preparation for this, so being forced to leave early is really disruptive," Akiyama said, adding that his company were not participating in "Premium Friday" as it would also affect their commission-based sales.
Other employers and workers were less than impressed by the new campaign, saying that if companies could manage their time efficiently, and the government their balance sheet, then there would be no need for such a "gimmick."
"What difference is leaving work a couple of hours early once a month really going to make?" quizzed Kayoko Nakajima, an account director at a marketing firm.
"We gave our staff the option to leave work early (today) but for some of them it just means they will have to take work home with them over the weekend or delay it until Monday."
"For others it just means them going home early and sleeping, I really don't think people are going to go out spending money after work, unless there's some kind of government incentive," Nakajima told Xinhua, adding that she thought it was a publicity stunt related to the country's bad press recently over "karoshi."
But while "Premium Friday" may seem gimmicky to some, or conspiratorial to others, the very real risk of illness and even death from working too many hours is prevalent in Japan, with "karoshi" incidents rarely out of the headlines.
Tadashi Ishii, the CEO of the Dentsu Inc., the fifth-largest advertising agency in the world and the largest in Japan, announced that he will leave his post at the firm to take responsibility for the high-profile suicide on Christmas day in 2015 of one of the agency's young female employees, who had been ludicrously overworked.
The Tokyo Labor Bureau said the suicide of Matsuri Takahashi, 24, was ruled as related to excessive overtime, with the young lady logging as much as 105 hours of overtime over the course of a single month.
According to a health ministry white paper citing data from both the National Police Agency and the Cabinet Office, "work issues" were a contributing factor in 2,159 suicides in 2015, with long hours and intolerable amounts of overtime more than likely behind a number of the preventable deaths.
"The government needs to enforce regulations to reduce working hours. The government has not done much on this topic," said Mari Miura, a professor of political science at Sophia University in Tokyo.