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In Japan, 'Rocky' and 'Premium Friday' join fight against overtime

By Chris Gallagher

TOKYO (Reuters) - From the "Rocky" theme to cash handouts and early "Premium Friday" finishes, a small but growing number of companies in workaholic Japan are getting creative with the ways they're getting employees out the door early.

The government launched its Premium Friday campaign, encouraging firms to let workers out a few hours early on the last Friday of the month so they spend money on shopping and leisure to help boost the economy.

The initiative is also part of a broader push by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's administration to reduce working hours, after the suicide of an employee at ad agency Dentsu <4324.T> - ruled "death by overwork" - cast a harsh spotlight on Japan Inc's deep-rooted problem of excessive overtime.

"Excessive working hours have become a big problem," said Etsuko Tsugihara, chief executive of public relations firm Sunny Side Up Inc <2180.T>.

"We were thinking of ways to improve our own working environment when the government came up with Premium Friday and we thought it was a good idea."

As an added incentive, she said Sunny Side Up would hand employees a one-time 3,200 yen ($28) cash payment as they headed out at around 3 p.m., while the firm stood to benefit from a productivity standpoint.

"In creative industries like ours, inspiration won't come just from staying in the office for a long time. But take some time off, breathe new air and see new things and the ideas will come, and you'll be refreshed when you come back on Monday."

Beyond easing the personal toll on workers, the government has the economy in mind.

As the labor pool shrinks along with the population, it wants firms to reduce hours to encourage more women to work and get fathers more involved in bringing up children. Increased leisure time should also mean more time between the sheets to boost the birth rate.

'GONNA FLY NOW'

Some employers are already taking up the call.

Channeling their inner Rocky, workers at the headquarters of Mitsui Home Co <1868.T> hear the trumpets of "Gonna Fly Now" playing over office speakers every day at 6 p.m. as a signal that they can leave.

Saint-Works Corporation, which specializes in IT system development for the nursing care industry, has a no-overtime day once a month. Violators must wear a purple "cape of shame" with gold stars.

Others, like the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, are simply turning off the lights by around 8 p.m. to make people leave. Leasing company Orix Corp <8591.T> plans to offer up to 50,000 yen for employees who use at least five vacation days in a row.

Still, these examples are by far the exception in a culture where workers are judged by the amount of "face time" they put in, and feel pressure not to leave before the bosses.

SMBC Nikko Securities estimated that up to just 6.5 percent of Japanese workers would participate in Premium Friday.

A government white paper released in October showed that almost a quarter of companies had employees who had worked more than 80 hours of overtime in a month - its threshold for risk of "karoshi", or death by overwork.

To plug loopholes in the labor laws, the government last week submitted to a work reform committee a proposal to limit overtime to 720 hours a year, or an average of 60 hours a month.

DRASTIC OVERHAUL

Truly bidding sayonara to overtime in Japan "requires a fairly drastic overhaul", said Yoko Ishikura, professor emeritus at Hitotsubashi University and an expert on workstyle reforms.

Japanese offices are still employing too many generalists with ill-defined roles making it hard to measure their work output and thus encouraging unproductive time sitting at desks, while an inflexible job market was exacerbating the problem, she said.

"We're very efficient in factories but when it comes to white collar, productivity is very low," she said. "What we're interested in is productivity improvement and innovation, and long work hours do not help either."

Still, some are apprehensive about changing too much, too quickly.

At a meeting last week of the government's Council on Economic and Fiscal Policy, Suntory Holdings Chief Executive Takeshi Niinami expressed concern that less overtime could hurt workers in the form of lower pay - and hurt consumer spending.

Sadayuki Sakakibara, chairman of the Japan Business Federation corporate lobby, told reporters he was basically in favor of setting limits on work hours but the global competitiveness of Japanese firms could be at risk if limits were too strict.

However, Yoshie Komuro, founder and head of the consultancy Work-Life Balance Co, noted Japan Inc had already been losing its global edge recently and said it must change its mindset to improve performance and attract top talent.

"Japan thinks long working hours are a tool that it can use to win, but the reality is they're the reason it's been losing."

(Reporting by Chris Gallagher; Additional reporting by Hyun Oh and Ritsuko Shimizu; Editing by Robert Birsel)