Japan May Force People to Take Vacation

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Japan is considering passing a law that would require its hard-working residents to take time off, which would do wonders to relieve their job stress.
Japan is considering passing a law that would require its hard-working residents to take time off, which would do wonders to relieve their job stress.

One of the stupidest thing people do, in my opinion (and it’s only one item on a long list to be sure), is not take all of their vacation days.

Paid time off from your job is part of your compensation package. Not taking your vacation days is like not cashing a paycheck. But then, I have never been accused of being a workaholic. My commitment to my job is 24/7 — 24 hours a week, seven months a year. Not everyone agrees with my approach (they tend to be people who need 10 hours to do three hours of work), but so long as they don’t cause me any problems, I don’t much care.

But what do you do when an entire country skips vacation days? How do you deal with the damage job stress does to the health of employees when they are at work all the time? In Japan, they are seriously thinking about passing a law requiring people to not show up at the office.

Look at the statistics, and you’ll see the problem. Yuri Kageyama of The Associated Press wrote, “About 22 percent of Japanese work more than 49 hours a week, compared with 16 percent of Americans, 11 percent of the French and Germans, according to data compiled by the Japanese government. South Koreans seem even more workaholic, at 35 percent.

“Barely half the vacation days allotted to Japanese workers are ever taken, an average of nine days per individual a year.”

That Japan is a very conformist society is hardly news. Working long hours is a large part of how Japan went from a defeated, bombed-out moonscape to world economic power in just one generation. In the past two decades, its economy has stagnated, and lots of cheap labor was one way to stay competitive. No one in Japan wants to let the side down; vacations are for the weak. As a result, there is something called “sah-bee-soo zahn-gyo,” which Kageyama translates as “service overtime.” Another looser translation of it is “working for free.”

What effect does this have on Japanese society? Well, they have a falling birth rate because people work so much, and a shrinking population creates all sorts of economic problems. One of the problems is staying competitive, which will require more cheap labor, more working for free. It’s a vicious cycle.

There is even a word in Japanese, “karoshi,” which means working yourself to death, literally. The government guesses that 200 people die a karoshi death each year, heart attack or cerebral hemorrhages due to long hours. Suicide brought on by depression doesn’t show up in these numbers, so who knows how many more people in Japan die because they can’t spend a day at the beach?

Yuu Wakebe is the Health and Labor Ministry guy in charge of getting more Japanese citizens to take time off. Sadly, he is more a part of the problem than he is a part of the solution. “Wakebe himself routinely does 100 hours of overtime a month, and took only five days off last year, one of them for staying home with a cold,” Kageyama reported. “He managed to take a vacation to Hawaii with his family.”

It seems to me that the law to force people to take vacation is doomed to fail. I’d explain why, but it’s 3 o’clock on a Thursday as I write this, so my weekend has started. See you all bright and early Tuesday, about 11 a.m.

Jeff Myhre is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine.

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