Japan increases holidays to cut down on overwork

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

November 09, 1993|By Thomas Easton | Thomas Easton,Tokyo Bureau

TOKYO -- Everyone knows the Japanese work hard. There is even a word, Karooshi, for dying of overwork.

But ask yourself a question: did you go to work last Wednesday? Do you take off a day to celebrate the vernal equinox, or sports, or children, or adults, or the aged?

All of these and more are official holidays in Japan.

Last Wednesday was Culture Day. The meaning of a day devoted to culture, as opposed to, say, the vernal equinox, is difficult for even the Japanese to understand.

Perhaps to explain, Japan's Cultural Affairs Agency released a survey last week indicating the nation's most important cultural activity is karaoke, a sing-along-with-the bouncing-ball activity typically done in a bar after a couple of drinks.

Perhaps unaware of its new standing, most central Tokyo bars offering karaoke were shut on Culture Day.

So too was almost every other office, including, appropriately, that of the Karooshi society, which is devoted to examining issues of overwork.

Hiroko Micuta and her boyfriend were two of the few strollers in one of Tokyo's usually packed business districts. They were on their way home.

"We went shopping and had lunch together," Ms. Micuta said, "We didn't do anything cultural. We consider today kind of like a weekend."

She wasn't alone. Ginza, site of many large department stores, was humming. And given recent events, Tokyo's recession-beleaguered stores may well benefit from more days like this in the future.

Consider the fate of April 29, once the national holiday honoring Emperor Hirohito. The emperor died four years ago but the holiday survived, renamed Flower and Greenery Day. Meanwhile, the birthday of the new emperor, Dec. 23, has been added to the vacation calendar.

That, in turn, triggered an expansion of the unofficial, but rapidly expanding, calendar of other vacation days.

The Emperor's Birthday now begins an extended break around Christmas time that ends for many companies on Jan. 3.

In August, officially a non-vacation month, many Japanese take off three days to celebrate O-Bon, a celebration of the dead. In May, two official holidays separated by only a day are often linked with an additional day-off in the middle -- and days off.

Not including these very real, but officially absent additional days, the Japanese now have 13 national holidays, at least two more than on the official U.S. calendars, and, given the reality that most U.S. companies don't actually take off all national holidays, perhaps five more days.

"It's really unbelievable, people say the Japanese work so hard but it is just crap," said Thomas Nevins, managing director of TMT Inc., a labor consulting firm used by numerous multinational companies.

Some areas of the Japanese economy, of course, are incredibly productive, most notably, Mr. Nevins said, its factories and blue collar workers.

For the rest, the perception of the country's obsessive work habits may have been more true in years, and generations, past.

Older employees, still resist taking their full vacations, Mr. Nevins said. Moreover, it is only been within the past decade that major firms abandoned six day work weeks.

It was in response to the lack of vacation that the government, in cooperation with industry, began introducing a growing array of national holidays, said Takashi Kiuchi, an economist the Long-Term Credit Bank of Japan.

Now that Japan has finally begun to adopt the shorter week and fuller vacations, Mr. Kiuchi said the government has found it impossible to withdraw the national holidays.

Dick Pinto is an American executive with years of experience in Japan. Now president of Excellon Automation, a California company manufacturing drilling components for circuit boards, he is setting up a new Japanese operation.

Week days are spent with customers, and he makes an effort to meet with distributors on weekends, a practice that may have worked better in the old days.

Similarly, he is being asked by his Japanese employees to allow the normal Japanese national holidays in addition to Excellon's long Christmas holiday, given in the U.S. in exchange for having few holidays during the year.

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