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Japanese Workers Are All Work, Little Play


TOKYO — Summer. A time to relax, head for the beach, forget about work and enjoy that hard-earned vacation so you're bright and fresh in September.

Unless you're the average diligent Japanese, that is. Despite growing pressure from government advisory groups, mental health experts, regulators and even economists to take more vacation, the Japanese aren't listening.

In fact, the trend in the world's second-largest economy is in the opposite direction. Japanese nowadays take just 49.5% of their 18-day vacation allowance, the government says. That's the fifth consecutive nose-to-the-grindstone reduction, down from 61.1% during the holiday heyday of 1980.

This contrasts with the stress-buster French and Germans, who take virtually every minute of the six weeks they're allotted, according to comparative figures by the Japanese government, and Americans on average take three-quarters of their 17 days allowed.

"I'm in charge of worker health issues at my company, and I'm always trying very hard to get people to take more time off," says Masaaki Nozaki, 29, a manager with the benefits department of a Japanese bank. "But they just don't listen."

Does Nozaki follow his own advice? "I guess I'm a bit of a hypocrite," he admits sheepishly. "I only take around eight of my 20 days."

Masako Hirano, a 56-year-old construction executive, says that at most he takes two vacation days a year. He estimates that he's left 600 days on the table over the course of his career. Most companies let people carry their vacation days over for one year before losing them.

Multiply that pattern across the labor landscape and you've got 400 million vacation days annually the Japanese aren't enjoying--and should be, according to the government-funded Institute for Free Time Design.

In a proposal issued in June dubbed "Columbus' Egg"--a phrase meant to evoke Japan's rebirth, not a breakfast dish--the group urges Japanese to goof off more in order to unleash $100 billion in leisure spending, help reduce stress, improve mental health and spur national vitality. There's even talk of passing a basic vacation law to nudge people further.

"Most people think they shouldn't take holidays because the economy's so weak," said Hisaya Yanagida, a project manager at the institute. "We need to turn that thinking on its head."

Corporate foot soldiers on the economic front lines counter, however, that taking more time off isn't practical, as restructuring, layoffs and work overload take their toll. The vacation days Japanese used in 2000, the most recent figures available, don't include 14 official and a few other customary holidays.

"We should be able to have fun without feeling guilty, but the pressure is getting more intense," says Emiko Iwasa, a planning official with the Japan Hotel Assn. "I'm in the leisure industry, yet even I can't afford any leisure."

More subtle factors also play a part. In Japan's group-based work culture, analysts say, individual responsibilities tend to be less defined than in the West, while vacation time is seen as more a privilege than a right. As a result, those who take off often feel they're letting co-workers down.

"I tend to feel guilty if I'm vacationing and they're working," said Sachiyo Yoshida, a 59-year-old finance company worker.

The notable exception is when everyone takes off at once. What results are nightmarish traffic jams, sky-high hotel rates and enormous aggravation during the big holidays as everyone heads out of town in a giant scrum.

"The crowds and expense are a real drag during Golden Week and New Year's," said part-time office worker Michiko Awano, 38. "But that's how it goes."

The interplay of guilt, concern and duty sometimes means that time off becomes more acceptable when it's linked to an obligation. Thus, weddings, funerals and family illnesses are often cited as reasons for the four or five days of personal time people actually use.

"But if you just say you're going fishing, going to have fun or [to] watch a baseball game, that's difficult," said Shinichi Kaneko, a 76-year-old janitor. "Only if everyone's doing something is it all right."

An added problem for those in the generation born shortly after the war is that many devoted their lives to the company and never learned how to take it easy, mental health experts say. One result: The prospect of more than a short amount of free time can be pretty daunting.

"They often believe they live to work," said Toru Sekiya, president of the Hatsudai Sekiya Neuro-Psychiatric Clinic. "The government needs to encourage them to slow down, open their minds, spend more time on their relationships."

One possible solution, said Yanagida of the free-time institute, is creating classes to teach people to have fun. The "lifelong seminars" given to so-called salary men who are preparing to leave their companies could serve as a model. "They invite someone in who's having fun and let people listen to their experience," he said.

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