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Japan’s Latest Scheme to Reduce Working Hours Is Essentially Meaningless

Dec 30, 2016

Japan's work culture is notoriously punishing. This is, after all, the country that coined the phrase karoshi, or death by overwork.

A much trumpeted labor initiative doesn't look as though it's going to change things very much, either. Beginning Feb. 24, the Japanese government and participating business groups will launch the "Premium Friday" campaign to let people leave the office a couple of hours early — but not every Friday. Just the last Friday of each month, Bloomberg reports.

The scheme is not mandatory, either, so it is unclear how many enterprises will actually take part. The Japan Business Federation (Keidanren) has encouraged its members to sign up, but they comprise a mere 1,300 companies. (There are well over 2.5 million registered businesses in Japan according to figures from 2006.)

Even the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, which is promoting "Premium Friday," has not signaled if its staff will participate.

"Premium Friday" comes at a time when karoshi is back in the spotlight. Earlier this week, the head of Japan’s biggest ad agency Dentsu ( resigned over the suicide of Matsuri Takahashi, a young employee who leaped to her death in December 2015 after becoming depressed from overwork.

“Death by overwork should never happen. I ask executives to take effective measures to redress (the situation.)” said Keidanren chairman Sadayuki Sakakibara following Takahashi's suicide, Japan's Kyodo news agency reports.

For more on death by overwork, watch Fortune's video:

According to 2014 figures from the Japan Institute For Labor Policy, Japan has the highest percentage of workers working over 49 hours per week among the G-7 nations. However data from the Japan Productivity Center indicates that the country also has the worst productivity among the group.

“Japan is still a country where working long hours is considered a virtue,” said Kazunari Tamaki, a lawyer who specializes in karoshi told Japan's Kyodo. “But we need to focus on improving efficiency within fixed hours to boost productivity.”

Unfortunately, with schemes like "Premium Friday" that's unlikely to happen any time soon.

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