Tangent: AFP/Jiji: “Workaholic Japan considers making it compulsory to take vacation days.” Good news, if enforceable


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Hi Blog. As a tangent to what Debito.org usually takes up, let’s consider something interesting that affects everyone in Japan: the pretty insane work ethic.

Caveat: Having a society that works hard pays out enormous benefits in terms of convenience. Who can grumble about being able to, say, get a good meal at any time from a convenience store, or have bureaucrats and postal workers working on weekends? Well, those people working those kinds of jobs. And while I see a similar erosion of working hours in the United States (according to the OECD, both Americans and Japanese work fewer hours per year in 2013 than they did in 2000, but Americans still work more hours than Japanese — not surprising seeing how inhumane the amount of time people in retail have to work, especially here in Hawaii), one big issue is the ability to take vacations. I see people working full-time around here able to take sick days and even vacations without much blowback from their colleagues. Not in Japan, according to the article below. That’s why the GOJ is considering making the vacations mandatory.

This is good news. However, a closer consideration of the stats given below show an disturbing tendency: Western Europeans take almost all of their mandatory paid holidays off (up to more than a month), while Japanese take less than half of the half of the paid holidays days off they possibly could (i.e., around nine days a year, according to the article below). And what are the labor unions pushing for? Eight days. How underwhelming. Earn your dues, unions!

I think anyone reading Debito.org (since so many of us have worked for Japanese companies) understands why Japanese workers take so few days off and sometimes work themselves to death — peer pressure. Hey Kinmu Taro, how dare you duck out of the office for a vacation and thereby increase the workload for everyone else? How dare you even try to leave “early” on a daily basis. After all, “early” is defined as ahead of anyone else — you even have to embarrassingly announce “Osaki ni shitsurei shimasu” (“Excuse my rudeness for leaving ahead of you.”) as you walk out the door as an apparent show of good manners (it’s more a mutual policing strategy). So you work late, even if that means you just sit at the office until 7 or 8 PM waiting for the boss, who often has no real interests outside of the company, to leave first (or ask you out for drinks, although that Bubble-Era experience is probably a dying phenomenon). So you find make-work or skiving strategies to look busy, and thus the company soaks up the overwhelming majority of your waking hours, for six or even seven days a week.  To the point where the overwheming majority of Japanese workers are reportedly bored to bits on the job. I’m not saying anything here you probably don’t know already.  I’m just explaining why I opened this blog entry with calling Japan’s work ethic “insane”.

So of course, what with all this embedded bullying, making the holidays mandatory is the only way to go. If it’s enforceable, that is: you’ll have to be brave enough to take it up with the Labor Standards Bureau if your employer won’t play ball (given how many people already work on national holidays anyway, employers don’t). So this development is good news for everyone, except that it’s not really asking for more than what the average person takes off anyway. Not until people demand Western-European standards of vacationing culture will things change.  Clearly even Japan’s worker-representative labor unions are not about to do that (especially given the argument that the United States works even more hours).

I think Japanese corporate culture has immense trouble understanding that working longer does not equal working harder. Being able to take proper vacations is important in understanding how to work smarter — in order to increase worker productivity during the actual hours worked.  By being able to duck out for a vacation recharge when necessary without the stress of guilt interfering, I think the Americans have a bit more leeway to do that.

Labor productivity studies is not exactly my field, and I’m sure plenty of Debito.org Readers have their own opinions and experiences about the work ethic in Japan.  Opening this topic up for discussion.  Dr. ARUDOU, Debito


Workaholic Japan considers making it compulsory to take vacation days
Japan Times/AFP-JIJI, FEB 4, 2015

Who wouldn’t want a holiday?

In Japan, plenty of workers fail to take their paid vacation allowance. The Abe administration is now considering making it compulsory for workers to take at least five days of paid holiday a year, in a bid to lessen the toll on mental and physical health.

Workers typically use less than half their annual leave, according to a survey by the labor ministry that found employees in 2013 took only nine of their 18.5 days average entitlement.

A separate poll showed that one in six workers took no paid holidays at all that year.

The administration wants to boost the amount of paid leave used to 70 percent by 2020 and is planning to submit legislation in the current Diet session mandating holidays.

In early discussions, employers’ groups have proposed limiting the number of compulsory paid holidays to three days, while unions have called for eight.

The culture of long working hours and unpaid overtime is regularly criticized as a leading cause of mental and physical illness among employees.

The term “karoshi,” which means “death by overwork,” entered the lexicon a few years ago amid a surge in the number of people dying because of stress-related problems or taking their own lives.

According to a poll by the Japanese unit of Expedia, a U.S.-based online travel agency, workers in France enjoyed 37 paid holiday days in 2010 and used 93 percent of them.

Spain had 32 paid vacation days and Denmark 29, with the average employee using up more than 90 percent.

As well as the health benefits, days off encourage workers to spend money on leisure activities, thereby boosting the economy.

Japan has a relatively high 15 statutory holidays annually. In recent years there has been a move to shift the days so that they fall adjacent to the weekend, making domestic holidays more of a possibility.

This year for the first time there will be a five-day weekend in May and in September, to which it is expected some employees will add a few days’ leave to make their vacations longer.

8 comments on “Tangent: AFP/Jiji: “Workaholic Japan considers making it compulsory to take vacation days.” Good news, if enforceable

  • Jim Di Griz says:

    At the risk of sounding flippant, yet another waste of breath from the government.

    ‘Forcing’ companies to allow employees to take less days vacation than they already do on average? Gee, thanks for nothing!

    It’s hardly going to encourage women back into the workforce.
    It’s hardly going to improve well-being and quality of life.
    It’s hardly going to entice ‘elite’ NJ to ‘come to Japan and work’ (although it could certainly help Abe’s goal of NJ ‘going home’.
    It’s hardly going to reduce the suicide rate.
    It’s hardly going to reduce ‘death by over-work’.
    It’s hardly going to improve the nations poor mental health state or encourage the socially alienated hikkikomori to ‘engage’ in society.
    It’s hardly going to encourage workers to invest financially in their free-time (home luxuries, hobbies, expensive travel) and help boost the domestic economy.
    It’s hardly going to encourage working parents to spend more time with their kids, bringing them up right, and avoiding the need for schools to teach Moral Education.

    I’m sure other Debito.org readers can think of many more.

  • I don’t think the majority of Japanese houeswives will approve if their husbands spend more time at home – the alienation I witnessed in Japan seemed to be working out fine. I don’t blame Japanese women who are married to the stereotypical salary man. If they knew what kind of activities they were up to after drinking at the Izakaya, I’d too rather not have them around the kids. My experience may of course not be typical, but it was very obvious that the men I worked with didn’t like taking holidays because that meant they had to spend time with people they barely liked.

  • Some scattered thoughts

    – To me they can put whatever requirements they want in place, it’ll mean nothing if there is no teeth in the law and no basic respect for the rule of law when it comes to employee rights. To me, mandates on vacation will be just like mandatory overtime payment is now, summarily ignored by scores of “black companies,” and many many seemingly white companies as well for the sake of harmony in the workplace, and based on a common understanding that the true “honne” of the matter in the office is “no payment for overtime.” There will be those brave enough to go to the Labor Standards Board, and sue, and some may earn small victories. But until Japan builds in the legal mechanisms necessary to swiftly and meaningfully punish nonadherence, it won’t matter what’s in the rulebook.

    – One important additional factor in Japan is the peer pressure against taking CONSECUTIVE vacations. My better half works at an Old Guard, blue chip manufacturer with a strong union, so the number of days she has, even as a newer employee, is almost up to EU standards. She personally takes most of these days. BUT, the moment she tries to string more than two together, or, heaven forbid, append an extra 5 days onto a one week year-end holiday to see her inlaws abroad, the peer pressure kicks in. Though any break is better than no break, to me you lose most of the benefits of having 20 or more days off if they’re taken one day at a time. Unfortunately, on paper her situation looks European, because of the total. But once again the honne belies the tatemae.

    Until Japan moves past the ridiculous idea of vacation being an inherently selfish, childish thing that only serves to cause meiwaku for others (interestingly, when the person right next to them takes their own day off off, I hardly get most of them are thinking about the meiwaku caused to them at all…if anything, they’re still wallowing in shame for the day they themselves took off last week!), things won’t be up to snuff. I have explained that in my native culture (U.S.), nobody feels guilty or guilts others for taking a week or two at a time because they know two week’s later it’ll be their neighbor’s turn (this is in white collar, privileged situations…I realize wage labor in America is sadly medieval compared to most of the industrialized world). Every young Japanese person I have explained this too gets the logic and envies the system, yet feels powerless to change anything. I guess by the time they’re high enough in their company to be in a position of authority…they will have grown so bitter from overwork that they’ll fully expect those under them to do the same…and so it goes.

    If I may pose a related side question: Do people see Japan’s peculiar work ethic with respect to hour expectations and the “long hours = better work” ethos as more of a natural corollary to cultural values existing before the Economic Miracle, or is this something that was specifically constructed postwar to achieve an end of rapid employment and industrialization?

  • I find hard to believe studies saying Japanese work less time than Americans on average. Americans probably have more official (paid) hours than Japanese, but most Japanese I know do a lot of “service” overtime which probably doesn’t count anywhere (except for the ranking on the manager’s list).
    Many Japanese I know stay about 12 hours at work a day and come most Saturdays. In one year, I’ve never seen one person take more than two days of holidays in a row.
    When I read this article, I think that if I weren’t there, I would never believe it.

    Actually just getting 10 days of holidays could be fine if workers didn’t have to stay late at work. I’m not so much the kind of person to go travelling a lot so I would like much more getting a 9-5/6 job with almost no holidays than Japanese work time with French holidays. I think people can handle boring jobs if they have the time to do something outside of the job. If the job is all your life it has to be great or you end up growing the suicide statistic.

  • j_jobseeker says:

    I think this will be hard to enforce, on a socio-cultural level at least. A friend of me and my wife has been dealing with lingering doubts about her job and company. One thing that’s been grating on her is how her bosses are all aglow about a new girl who’s been putting in a lot of hours. To them, she’s got her shoulder to the grindstone for “the company’s sake.” What they don’t know and what my friend sees as this girl’s trainer is that she bumbles a lot. She stays late to fix stuff she should’ve gotten right in the first place. However, an impromptu evaluation within the company showed that an overwhelming number of people equate “overtime” with “working hard” when in fact it seems to be a result of working poorly or inefficiently. Sadly, with such an internal company image of “overtime”, my friend has had to start putting in lots of hours as well, just to “keep up” with her younger rivals.

    Anyway, as the article mentions, this whole matter is about getting Japanese to take the days off they’re supposed to be taking anyway. It’s not like a fight for more vacation and sick time.

  • @J_jobseeker I have witnessed with my own eyes that for many people, long hours means hard work, and what’s even more irrational, quality work.
    Now, this mindset does exist in Western companies and Western bosses, too, but the huge difference is that those companies are usually having problems hiring the best people, because the best people shun toxic situations like these. So they resort to hiring mediocre people who try to compensate their lack of efficiency with doing long hours. I personally think that this is the core of why Japanese companies have this overtime culture – it’s they only way they can keep up with Western competitors. Not by innovation, not by efficiency, but by merely throwing manpower at problems and tasks and paying for it with debt.
    It’s rare for me to tout my own flawed country, but in Germany nowadays doing long hours regularly is being regarded as a negative – you come off as a person who is disorganised, not up to the task or working too slowly, and a probable candidate for demotion – and I my personal experience matches that. Bosses nowadays know that nobody can do efficient work for 12 hours a day.
    So, even career-bound people, as long as they work in somewhat modern companies, hardly work longer than 8 or 9 hours per day, never on weekends, and usually take all of their 30+ day vacations.

    Granted, Germany is “only” #4 in the GDP rankings compared to Japan at #3, but the GDP per capita paints another picture: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_GDP_%28nominal%29_per_capita

    So, the question is, with all the alleged effort the Japanese are putting into their work, why don’t they realise it’s not working? The miracle economy after all was not their making – it was given to them by the US as a band-aid for two nuked cities and to prop them up against Communism.

  • @Markus, more relevant is maybe this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_GDP_(PPP)_per_hour_worked

    For all the cultural canards about “hard work ethic”, Japan seems hardly exceptional when you consider the output-input relation (ie how much time it takes to produce a unit of value). I’m sure every observer has his or her own anecdotes about these inefficiencies and imbalances in Japan. Of course many workers are getting squeezed and swamped but there’s also a sizable contingent of “activities” that leave one wondering if ‘death by boredom’ could kill it would actually outnumber death by overwork. But of course, as a technical person (engineer) by trade, part of it is just my general disdain for paper-pushing office folks speaking.

    As for making vacation “mandatory”, this won’t solve the actual issue. Vacation is like, what, a once-a-year, few-days-off kinda thing (and seeing the Golden Week hassle now, it more likely produces more stress than any relaxation it’s supposed to give), the real issue are the normal everyday working hours. People need to be able to actually go home at a decent hour so they’ll have significant time left over for their families (or to start a family in the first place, as it were). If there’s one dubious positive to be gleaned from the rise in precarious part-time and irregular workers, it’s maybe that it’ll hopefully break down the old-model servant mentality and give more people a healthy “fuck this shit, you don’t care for me so why should I care for you”-attitude. (Well, who am I kidding, it’s likely more of the same overworked and underpayed).

    How to fix it ? That I don’t know, but it seems obvious that in every country that made progress in that direction it was broad unions (back when unions had actual teeth) that fought to raise the bar in labor relations. Of course, since why should employers give out freebies from the goodness of their hearts. I don’t know much about unions in Japan, someone else ? It’s not like there are major demonstrations and strikes for this issue in Japan, because that’d be terribly un-harmonical, I guess.

    – Define “major”. There are plenty of strikes and public demonstrations by unions in Japan. Visit any major park in Japan on May Day. Unions are underwhelming, but they are not nonexistent either, so let’s keep a balanced view.

  • “Define “major”. There are plenty of strikes and public demonstrations by unions in Japan. Visit any major park in Japan on May Day. Unions are underwhelming, but they are not nonexistent either, so let’s keep a balanced view.”

    Thanks, that’s why I was asking. Like I said, I know nothing about unions in Japan (besides maybe having read about the shunto custom), and if this issue (time management and work-life balance) is high up on their agenda or not ? (I’m guessing the way things are going, securing their jobs at all and maybe eking out a modest raise once in a while is more of a priority, recession and all). Because, as was said, this won’t have any meaningful effect if it is simply decreed from above (like another obligation), people have to actually fight for it so they want it as their right. But I’m talking about normal everyday working hours of course, which matters more than any singular “vacation” time. I still remember the epic struggles the unions put on in Germany in the 70/80s to get the 35h workweek through, so it’d be good to see a similar movement in Japan.


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