Photo/IllutrationThe Daimaru Tokyo department store holds a fashion show of new golf wear to celebrate the first anniversary of “Premium Friday” in Tokyo’s Chiyoda Ward. (Mana Takahashi)

“Premium Friday” has proved a winner in terms of publicity, with almost all working people aware of the government-backed campaign to clock off early once a month--but the reality is somewhat different.

The idea behind the monthly event is for employers to allow their workers to leave the office at 3 p.m. on the last Friday of each month so they can enjoy shopping, dining and other economy-boosting activities.

However, more than a year on from its launch, only about one in 10 workers leave the office earlier on the special day, and the public-private effort has still not led to increased consumer spending.

It would be fair to say that Premium Friday has not lived up to its title so far, but the government insists that what is important is to persistently continue efforts to promote it.

NOT IN FASHION

On the evening of Feb. 23, staff put on a “fashion show” at the Daimaru Tokyo department store to showcase new golf wear and celebrate Premium Friday’s first anniversary, few shoppers stopped to watch the event.

When Premium Friday was launched, Daimaru Tokyo expected many customers would stop by the shop before returning home, and tried to sell hand massage services and special sweets to the anticipated new crowds.

However, the store soon found that it is primarily homemakers and elderly shoppers who buy those services and products. Although it also released a half-price beauty treatment package for Premium Friday, no customers have booked the discount service for an entire year.

“Premium Friday has nearly no positive effects,” said a Daimaru Tokyo publicity official.

Shigeki Yamazaki, managing director of the Japan Department Stores Association, admitted, “Consumer spending has been boosted less than we expected.”

The Premium Friday campaign was started jointly by the economy ministry and Keidanren (Japan Business Federation).

While the project was simply aimed at stimulating consumer spending like Black Friday in the United States to boost the nation’s GDP, the government decided to encourage corporations to enable workers to leave early one day a month as the Abe administration says improving working conditions is a priority.

On Premium Friday, 150 outlets of the Kushikatsu Tanaka “izakaya” pub chain open at 3 p.m., two hours earlier than usual, and sell its fried “kushikatsu” skewered cutlets at a discount price of 100 yen (94 cents) per piece.

Though sales for the last Friday of each month have increased by 20 percent, few people visit the restaurants early, according to Kushikatsu Tanaka officials.

FLIGHT OF FANCY?

Travel agencies have also attempted to cash in on the nationwide campaign.

Nippon Travel Agency Co. marketed a package that allows consumers to receive a discount of up to 10,000 yen if they stay at accommodation facilities on the last Friday of the month.

The number of hotel bookings rose three times from the previous year on the first Premium Friday, but the figure for the next month was almost the same as that for ordinary Fridays.

JTB Corp. stopped selling its dedicated tour that starts on Premium Friday within just two months, because fewer people than anticipated applied for it.

Another more fundamental problem is that only a few people can leave their workplaces early.

A public relations official of a leading general contractor said the company urges its employees to leave offices earlier on the last Friday each month, but that the practice “has not been widely accepted.”

“It is impossible for our staff to end work earlier, as construction is under way on weekdays,” the official said.

One major food company’s publicity official said the corporation “only urged workers to leave early immediately after” Premium Friday was initiated.

“Almost no employees are currently conscious of (Premium Friday),” the official said.

AWARENESS HIGH, PARTICIPATION LOW

To survey what people think of the publicly supported effort, the Premium Friday Committee, which consists of officials from the economy ministry and Keidanren, has each month asked 2,000 working men and women across Japan about Premium Friday.

The study results showed around 90 percent of respondents have heard about the initiative, while 11.2 percent said they “left offices earlier than usual” on the last Friday of the month.

Although 16.4 percent of large company employees said they left early, the figure for small and midsize firm workers was 10.2 percent.

Referring to the findings, the government’s top spokesman said the Abe administration will continue proceeding with the campaign.

“More than 90 percent of people are aware of Premium Friday, and about 20 percent of respondents said they could leave their offices earlier,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said at a Feb. 23 news conference. “The practice has gradually been accepted.”

Economy minister Hiroshige Seko said patience is important.

“What is significant is patiently continuing the campaign for years so it will be accepted even by small and midsize companies and people in local regions,” Seko said.

Yoshihisa Aono, president of software developer Cybozu Inc., which provides prolonged child-rearing and nursing care leave systems and allows employees to work at home, said Premium Friday could provide a good opportunity for people to think of their working environment.

“Leaving at 3 p.m. on the last Friday each month is a good idea, but other work styles, such as coming to the office later than usual on Monday, should also be allowed,” he said. “I hope people will be inspired (by Premium Friday) to rethink which work styles are best suited for each of them.”

(This article was compiled from reports by Mana Takahashi, Ryuhei Tsutsui and Maiko Ito.)