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Why Won't Japanese Workers Go on Holiday?

A culture of overwork is worrying government officials, who are on the brink of forcing the country's workaholics to chill out before they die from overwork.

Japanese commuters in Tokyo. Photo via Flickr user Todd Mecklem

Japan is poised to force workers to take at least five days of paid vacation a year, a compromise between employers' groups calling for three and labor unions that wanted eight. Everyone in the country seems to agree that it's critical workers take their legally guaranteed vacation time, because not only are Japanese people not having sex, they're also refusing to take a break from the grind—and it's becoming an economic and health crisis.


Under Japan's Labor Standards Law, employees are entitled to at least ten days of paid annual leave per year, with one extra day per year worked until the employee reaches a 20-day-a-year cap. The average employee in 2013 was entitled to 18.5 vacation days and received 15 days off for national holidays. That's already the second lowest amount of vacation among the world's wealthiest nations—behind only the United States, with our ten federal holidays and lack of (federally) guaranteed paid leave.

Perhaps most surprising is that less than half of Japanese folks took their full vacation allotment in 2013, with the typical worker claiming only nine of an available 18.5 vacation days. One in six workers took none.

By comparison, the average French worker receives at least 37 legally guaranteed days of paid leave per year and uses 93 percent of them, figures that are similar to those of most other European nations.

The situation in Japan stems from a culture of overwork. Despite regulations that guarantee workers an eight-hour day and 40-hour work week, a mixture of peer pressure and stress about job security in a stagnant economy pushes workers to put in dozens, if not over a hundred, hours of (often unpaid and unrecorded) overtime per month. At least 22 percent of workers put in over 49 hours a week, compared to 11 percent in France and second only to South Korea's 35 percent overwork rate.


Yuu Wakebe, the Health and Labor Ministry official shepherding new laws on leisure time like this one into existence, ironically admits that he, too, works 100 hours of overtime a month and only took off five days in 2014, one of which was a sick day.

"It is actually a worker's right to take paid vacation," Wakebe recently told the Associated Press, "but working in Japan involves quite a lot of volunteer spirit."

But toiling away to the point of absurdity is not essential to Japanese culture. Some historians argue that, into the early 20th century, Japanese workers had a healthy respect for holidays and work limits—and were even considered lazy by some foreigners. But for many reasons, workaholism is now widespread and entrenched.

A fair body of evidence supports the idea that this overwork does not help—and may even cost—Japanese companies' profits. Workers' tendency to stay at the office just to seem like they're working actually drives down productivity numbers, and plummeting job satisfaction and skyrocketing fatigue also decrease the amount and quality of work done in the hours at the office. And according to some analysts, citizens' refusal to take breaks hammers the leisure industry, hurting the national economy. Some also blame overwork for the nation's plummeting birth rates, which may be working in tandem with increasingly asexual youth to doom the national supply of labor and skew the population towards geriatrics. That surplus of old people, in turn, portends an impossible burden for the nation's social welfare regime.


Overwork is also contributing to a national health crisis in which thousands are literally working themselves to death. This is known as karoshi, a term that entered the Japanese lexicon in the boom years of the 1970s. In America, the closest term we have is workaholism, yet despite the word's circulation in common speech since 1968, the US lacks any clear definition or official recognition of the condition like that afforded to karoshi. Around 2000, stories of workers hanging themselves after pulling 17-hour days and falling over from dehydration on shifts started to dominate the news—especially after Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi's stroke that year was attributed to karoshi—raising awareness of a major public health crisis.

As of 2011, 10,000 of Japan's 30,000 annual suicides were credited to karoshi, and in 2012, reports suggested that up to 5 percent of all strokes and heart attacks among citizens under 60 were caused by karoshi as well. By 2013, 1,409 citizens applied for (and 436 received) worker's comp for karoshi-based mental illness, while 784 applied for (and 133 received) compensation on the basis of karoshi-related brain and heart disorders. Most cases likely go unreported thanks to social stigmas and the high burdens of proof for claimants. But estimates suggest that up to 10 percent of Japanese workers put in 60-plus hours of work a week in conditions similar to acknowledged karoshi victims, putting them at risk of illness or even death.


The five-day mandatory vacation time legislation is far from the government's first attempt to tackle the economic and health threats of an overwork epidemic. Throughout the early 2000s, officials made it easier to recognize and claim compensation or treatment for karoshi. Some major cases—like the award of half a million dollars in damages to the family of a worker who put in 190 hours of overtime a month for three years in poor conditions before killing himself—have raised the profile of overwork and made it easier to talk about and seek aid or speak freely. The Ministry of Health and Labor has also issued a bunch of advice to workers, like their recommendation last year that employees take 30-minute naps in the afternoons to distress and refresh.

In 2014, lawmakers passed the Act on the Promotion of Measures to Prevent Karoshi, which came into effect at the end of the year. The act, which will be revised in 2017 pending findings on the overwork crisis, allocates resources to the study of karoshi and support of counseling and peer support resources like Workaholics Anonymous meetings, a national karoshi hotline, and a Karoshi Awareness Month (November).

But how do you legislate chilling out? In early January, reports surfaced that the government wanted to coerce people into taking at least 70 percent of their guaranteed paid leave by 2020. Even before talk of this new five-day mandate law, officials started moving around national holidays to better align with weekends, creating the nation's first five-day, vacation-ready weekends in May and September. And by mid-August 2016, the nation will add a 16th national holiday to its roster—the seemingly arbitrary Mountain Day. Yes, this is about celebrating the nation's mountains, but it's really just another excuse to force offices to close and overtaxed workers to chill the fuck out for a little while.

Unfortunately, it's unlikely that the Japanese government will be able to force people to take it easy. In the Netherlands, for instance, despite copious vacation days, up to 3 percent of the population suffers from leisure sickness —the inability to stop worrying about work while "relaxing," which makes one physically ill from stress. So long as the culture of worry and pressure persists in Japan, people could just get sick on their time off. That means there may soon be a whole new and highly ironic psychosomatic epidemic in the nation for the government to deal with.

Many nations are witnessing rising overtime and falling vacation rates similar to Japan's. Thanks to post-depression job insecurity, up to 57 percent of Americans are leaving vacation days on the table (the average worker took about 13 days of paid leave a year). Meanwhile in 2014, Chinese media outlets reported up to 600,000 local deaths tied to overwork-based exhaustion.

So let's hope Japan's mandated holidays and naptime advisories make for a functional mellowing program. The rest of the world may soon need a model to follow.

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