by Natsuko FUKUE
Japan's Prime Minister spent Friday afternoon meditating while staff at some of the country's biggest firms quit work early -- in time for a bit of shopping or maybe a boozy train ride.
Welcome to Premium Friday, Japan's latest bid to tackle two perennial problems -- sluggish consumer spending and notoriously long working hours blamed for a national health crisis known as karoshi, or death from overwork.
The work-life balance scheme, which launches this week, calls on employers to let staff off around 3:00 pm on the last Friday of every month.
Major firms such as automakers Nissan and Toyota, beverage giant Suntory and brokerage Nomura are taking part in the government-backed initiative.
But it's not mandatory and many companies have opted out, while some analysts question whether it will really boost spending or do much to change Japan's punishing work culture.
Still, the idea was a hit with Suntory employee Maki Suzuki, who said she often works late into the night or early morning when things are busy at the office.
"This is a good opportunity to plan something that we don't usually do," said the 34-year-old, as she visited a Tokyo art museum with some colleagues Friday afternoon.
"Taking a long holiday is too high a hurdle for many Japanese, but taking an afternoon off isn't."
The word has not gotten out to some people, however.
"When I told my friends about Premium Friday, they were like, 'What are you talking about?'" said Nami Kawasaki, another Suntory employee.
Mobile carrier SoftBank is letting its staff quit early and, later this year, will be putting an extra 10,000 yen ($90) in their pockets.
Other firms are jumping at the chance to sell stuff to workers with extra time on their hands.
One railway operator is offering a special train ride with beer and bento boxes, while off-early workers can also get discounts on everything from matchmaking services to cancer checks.
- 'Changing our lifestyle' -
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was taking it down a notch with plans to spend the afternoon at a Zen meditation temple, followed by a music concert.
Top government spokesman Yoshihide Suga was also keen to call it a day.
"Unfortunately I have to hold this press conference," he told reporters at a regular briefing earlier Friday.
"But as soon as I'm finished here, I'm going to be doing something" for Premium Friday.
Every year, Japan's long working hours are blamed for hundreds of deaths due to strokes, heart attacks and suicides.
In December, the head of Japan's biggest advertising agency Dentsu resigned in response to the suicide of a young employee who regularly logged more than 100 hours of overtime a month.
More than one in five Japanese companies have employees who work such long hours they're at serious risk of dying, according to a government survey published in October.
This hard-driving office culture spawned the image of the weary salaryman who worked all day, drank with the boss all night, and was back at his desk early in the morning.
That has changed over the decades, but putting in long hours is still viewed as a sign of dedication at many Japanese firms.
"We're hoping to boost spending by changing our lifestyle, the way we work and the way we think," Masanao Ueda, director of the industrial policy bureau at the Keidanren -- Japan's biggest business lobby -- told AFP.
But it could be a hard sell.
Many Japanese employees don't even take all of their regular annual leave and firms are not helping with the needed wage hikes.
"This campaign will not suddenly boost spending or stop long working hours," said Naoko Kuga, analyst at Tokyo's NLI Research Institute.
"It's not even mandatory for workers to leave early."