“Nobody else uses their vacation days,” said Sekiguchi, who was so busy her interview with The Associated Press had to be rescheduled several times before she could pop out of the office.
Legislation that will be submitted during the parliamentary session that began January 26 aims to ensure workers get the rest they need. In a break with past practice, it will become the legal responsibility of employers to ensure workers take their holidays.
Japan has been studying such legislation for years. There has been more impetus for change since 2012 as a consensus developed that the health, social and productivity costs of Japan’s extreme work ethic were too high.
Part of the problem has been that many people fear resentment from co-workers if they take days off, a real concern in a conformist culture that values harmony.
After all, in Japan, only wimps use up all their holiday days.
Most of the affected workers are “salarymen” or “OL” for office ladies like Sekiguchi, so dedicated to their jobs they can’t seem to go home. They are the stereotypes of, and the power behind, Japan Inc.
The workaholic lifestyle and related reluctance of couples to raise children have long been blamed as a factor behind the nosediving birthrate that’s undermining the world’s third-biggest economy.
Working literally to death is a tragedy so common that a term has been coined for it: “karoshi.” The government estimates there are 200 karoshi deaths a year from causes such as heart attacks or cerebral haemorrhaging after working long hours. It’s aware of many cases of mental depression and suicides from overwork not counted as karoshi.
Barely half the hoilday days allotted to Japanese workers are ever taken, an average of nine days per individual a year.
The problem in Japan in some ways parallels the situation of American workers, many of whom don’t get guaranteed paid holidays at all. But those who get them usually do take all or most of them.
Japanese must use their holidays for sick days, although a separate law guarantees two-thirds of their wages if they get seriously ill and take extended days off.
That means workers save two or three holiday days for fear of catching a cold or some other minor illness so they can stay home, said Yuu Wakebe, the Health and Labor Ministry official overseeing such standards.
“It is actually a worker’s right to take paid vacations,” he said. “But working in Japan involves quite a lot of a volunteer spirit.”
Younger workers feel uncomfortable going home before their bosses do. Working overtime for free, called “sah-bee-soo zahn-gyo,” or “service overtime,” is prevalent.
Job descriptions also tend to be vague, especially in white-collar occupations, meaning a person not coming in translates to more work for others in his or her team.
The new law will allow for more flexible work hours, encouraging parents to spend more time with their children during summer months, for instance, when school is closed.
Experts say the law is a start, while acknowledging the roots of the dilemma lie deep.
When night falls in Tokyo, groups of dark-suited salarymen can be seen, drinking at drab lantern-bobbing pubs under the train tracks, unwinding before heading home. They laugh, guzzle down their beers and pick at charcoal-broiled fish.
Ask any of them: they haven’t taken many days off. One said the 12 days he took off last year were too many.
Regulating time off might be easier to implement if the economy improves under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s anti-deflationary policies that weakened the yen, a plus for giant exporters such as Toyota Motor Corp.
The overwork problem intensified during the past two decades of economic stagnation in Japan. The use of cheap labour became common to stay competitive in a rapidly globalising economy, while the culture of loyalty to the company stayed.
Abe, not a person noted for taking long holidayss, has been stressing the need for change.
Japan’s work ethic, he said, is “a culture that falsely beatifies long hours.”