It’s hard to believe that anybody would refuse the offer of a holiday but in Japan employers can’t even pay their staff to take time off. When the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare delved into the subject to see just how bad things were, it discovered that in 2013 employees took only nine days off even though they were entitled to take an average of 18.5. One in six didn’t take any paid holiday at all.
Now the government has decided that it is time to take action and is considering making it compulsory for workers to take at least five days of paid holiday a year. Japanese workers’ resistance to holidays, often ascribed to their reluctance to inconvenience colleagues by disappearing even for a few days, is part of a bigger picture of a gruelling work culture that also features excessive and unpaid overtime. Nearly a third of Japanese are working more than 49 hours a week. Again, the government is stepping in and the Labour Ministry is leading by example.
Starting this month some of its workers are on a six-month trial to tackle endemic overtime. The document on the ministry’s website, which is headed,“Taking leave is part of your job. And this time we’re serious,” outlines the reforms and sets out not only the hours that employees should be working but also the number of days they should be taking as holiday.
The new rules show how bad working practices have become. As of this month, ministry employees will have to leave by 20.00, or at the latest 22.00 (and only in exceptional circumstances); there must be a 10-hour gap between leaving and coming back to work again; everyone should take one day of paid leave per month and a week in the summer. Overall, workers should be taking at least 16 days of holiday across the year.
This might all sound a bit heavy-handed but the Labour Ministry knows that left unchecked, the workers will stay at their desks. Aware that department heads set the tone, the Ministry has made them directly responsible for making sure that workers take the required time off and don’t appear at the office when they shouldn’t be there. If the numbers are off, the heads will have to explain why and errant divisions can expect a rough ride in their annual assessments.
From October, the ban on overtime will be come into force across the ministry. It sounds like fighting talk, although in reality the six-month trial will be a gentle start since the new rules are described as being “semi-mandatory”, which will inevitably leave some flexibility for those workaholics not ready to go cold turkey on overtime. Still, it’s a step in the right direction.
Fiona Wilson is Monocle's Asia bureau chief.