Page last updated at 01:47 GMT, Friday, 15 August 2008 02:47 UK

Japanese juggle summertime chores

Tokyo currency trader
Tired from long hours, Japanese workers are searching for a better solution

By Chris Hogg
BBC News, Tokyo

Just imagine how hard it is to arrange a meeting with a colleague in a different section of your company if they are on summertime, and you are not.

This year at the city council in Sapporo, the capital of Hokkaido, about 900 of the 12,000 employees adopted summer work patterns.

They came to work an hour earlier in the hope that they could spend more time in the evening with their families.

Japan's islands stretch in a long thin diagonal line from Okinawa in the south to Hokkaido in the north.

The country's most south-western point is 3,000 kilometres away from its tip in the north-east , but the whole country shares one time zone, which never changes.

It used to.

After World War Two Japan's American occupiers introduced Daylight Saving Time, but it was dropped in 1952.

Some here would like to see a return to that system.

Best possible

Remember that Japanese offices are often very formal places with working hours enforced strictly, so what time you start and finish really matters.

Even if I start early, I can't leave work early
Sapporo City Council PR official

So in Hokkaido five years ago the Chamber of Commerce began an experiment.

They call it a summertime system, though in effect it is a flexitime system.

"It is the best we can do," they say, "because we cannot change the clock unilaterally."

Longer days

Each year more and more people take part.

This summer, as well as Sapporo's City government, hundreds of companies and other government offices offered their employees the opportunity to shift their working hours.

The results seemed mixed.

At Sapporo City Council the public relations official was enthusiastic, initially at least.

"Last year I was working in HR," he says.

"That meant I could leave the office early during the summertime period without a problem. I could spend more time with my family, even get to the baseball on time.

"Now though," he complains, "I'm in PR, so even if I start early, I can't leave work early."

Shared concern

That seems to be a common problem for workers.

Full moon in Japan
Workers in Sapporo are fed up with getting up in the middle of the night

There is an unwillingness among managers, and customers, to accept that workers who start work an hour earlier should be allowed to finish earlier.

In fact, the Chamber of Commerce, the ones who started the experiment in the first place, says that under their system they allow workers to start an hour earlier, but expect them to still be at their desks an hour longer than normal at the end of the day, so that no-one was inconvenienced.

So where is the benefit in that?

The Hokuyo Bank says this was a concern for them too.

"Not all of our customers are using the system," they explain, "so we have to accommodate their needs."

They trialled it for three years. Now they allow employees to volunteer to work summer hours, and the managers work around it.

Nationwide solution

This "not quite one thing, not quite another system" sounds like it has caused a bit of a headache for those companies that have introduced it.

In this rigid, inflexible, ordered working environment, it is a challenge to begin to think flexibly about working hours.

So why have they bothered?

Well, finally it seems after five years of demonstrating that summertime can work in Hokkaido - and that there are benefits, not least environmental ones, savings on air-conditioning for instance because people start earlier when it's cooler.

In Tokyo it seems the politicians are listening.

Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda has promised to consider whether it should be introduced nationwide next year.

Good news for those workers up north tired of juggling schedules in home-made time zones.

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