Some in Japan losing sleep over daylight saving time

Times Staff Writer

In the land of the rising sun, no one can seem to agree on when it does. Rise, that is. Or set, for that matter.

This summer, thousands of people here on Hokkaido island switched to daylight saving time, with the idea that they’d start work an hour earlier and get off in time to enjoy the long summer evenings. (More on why that didn’t work out later.) But thousands of others here didn’t make the switch. And to make things even more quixotic, the rest of the country wasn’t on board with the springing-ahead thing at all.

Proponents of daylight saving time want to expand their 5-year-old experiment to the rest of Japan. But it’s been a mixed bag. One big problem is that people can’t move their clocks an hour forward, unlike in the West, because daylight saving time isn’t official, and it’s entirely voluntary. Hundreds of companies and government offices in Sapporo and elsewhere on Hokkaido participate in the program, but most others ignore summertime, as it’s called here. Some banks follow it, but other institutions, such as public schools, don’t.


“Everybody has different ideas about it,” said Mitsuhito Araya, director of Sapporo city’s general planning department.

Araya likes daylight saving time. The 52-year-old has no problem coming to work at 8 instead of 9 -- it’s a “fresh experience,” he said. But he seldom leaves the office any earlier, mainly because he finds it hard to go home before others do, not all of whom start an hour earlier. Every now and then, Araya says, he sneaks out at 5 p.m., as he did on a recent Thursday to meet his wife for a drink and dinner at a cozy restaurant.

“It’s rare for Japanese families, and husband and wife, to spend time together,” he said.

Others see summertime as a way to save energy and boost consumer spending. But at the Sapporo city government, only about 900 of the 12,000 employees switched to daylight saving time this year. That can complicate coordination among departments, for meetings and other functions. Citizens have complained about public employees not being available late in the afternoon.

Part of the reason for the low participation may be summertime’s checkered past here: Daylight saving time was introduced during the U.S. occupation after World War II. Many Japanese associated it with defeat and longer work hours, and it was dropped in 1952.

Since then, Japanese politicians have tried to revive the system. But then as today, people remain suspicious about the claims of benefit to employees.

After Japan’s long economic malaise, with the so-called lost decade and the unraveling of lifetime employment, some wonder whether daylight saving time is a plot by employers to wring extra work out of them without paying overtime.


Yet if any place here seemed suitable for summertime hours, Masato Sato, a spokesman for North Pacific Bank, and others figured it would be Hokkaido. On Japan’s northernmost island, the sun rises as early as 4:30 in the summer and doesn’t set until nearly 15 hours later. The Japanese archipelago is rich in natural beauty, with pristine forests, national parks and gorgeous coastlines for the enjoyment of those who can break away from work.

Hokkaido’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry initiated the drive five years ago, with 221 companies and 6,000 workers participating that summer. Tens of thousands of people have since joined the program.

North Pacific Bank, the island’s largest, was driven by self-interest. It hoped that daylight saving time could help prop up the sagging economy and abysmal consumer activity on Hokkaido, whose population is among the fast-shrinking in the nation.

“If we go back home earlier, we will go shopping and do leisure activities -- and that will have an economic effect,” said Sato, though he couldn’t cite any hard data to prove it.

“We hope summertime becomes law, but there are many people against it,” he said, acknowledging that the program isn’t universally popular at his bank. But, he said, that may be because people can’t move their clocks an hour forward.

Ken-ichi Honma laughs at statistics touting daylight saving time’s benefits for the environment. “That’s numerical trickery,” said the professor of physiology at Hokkaido University Graduate School of Medicine. “Don’t you think the economic impact also increases energy demand? In my opinion, it’s contradictory.”


Honma’s main reason for opposing daylight time is sleep -- or lack of it. He says when people move their clocks forward an hour, they lose an hour of sleep until they adjust to the change, which typically takes three weeks. That’s particularly bad for Japanese because they tend to sleep less than Westerners.

“Japanese people are always napping in trains and at meetings,” Honma said, noting that sleeping problems can lead to behavioral issues. “They need sleep.”

Yoshihiro Uesaka, 38, certainly wouldn’t argue with that. His employer, Sapporo’s Chamber of Commerce, is one of the biggest boosters of daylight saving time. A month before launching the program for the fifth straight summer, the chamber put up a banner outside its building and plastered stickers promoting summertime on the front door and elevator.

Before June, Uesaka woke up at 7:30 and started work at 9. With summertime, he doesn’t go to bed earlier; he gives up an hour of sleep.

These days, he arrives at the office at 8. “Summertime” intentions aside, he often doesn’t leave the office until 8. On the subway home, he usually falls asleep.



Hisako Ueno of The Times’ Tokyo Bureau contributed to this report.