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Can Japan still afford all its public holidays?

Japan officially boasts seventeen public holidays. In reality it is well over twenty, if January 2nd–4th and the three-day Obon Festival in August are taken into account. So why the need for so many?

The main problem is that the average employee or small-business owner finds it difficult or impossible to take out a private vacation at a time of their own choosing. Part-timers, who often put in a full eight hours a day, as well as countless others on short-term contracts hoping for an extension, know that remaining at their company’s or outsourcing agency's constant beck and call is a prerequisite for survival.

Even regular salaried workers face severe restrictions on the number of consecutive business days for which leave can be granted at any one time. This effectively puts paid to any plans they might have to take the family on a proper vacation of meaningful duration, especially in the more reasonably priced off-peak travel season.

So what does the government do to help them? Instead of keeping the wheels of commerce rolling by enforcing modern holiday legislation that would allow all personnel to take it in turns to recharge their batteries, each and every year most workers are expected to down tools at the very same times.

It all begins with the extended New Year’s holiday from December 31st until January 4th, which is as important to the Japanese as Christmas is to Westerners. Unlike in neighboring South Korea, observance of Christmas on December 25th remains a non-starter thanks to strict separation of state and religion.

Toward the end of April, just after everyone is supposed to have knuckled down to a new academic year, comes 'Golden Week', four public holidays and a weekend that spill over into May.

The next long hiatus occurs over three days and a weekend in the middle of August. Obon is a time when citizens traditionally return to their hometowns and villages to be reunited with their loved ones, and to celebrate the brief return of ancestral spirits according to local Buddhist tradition. There is one red day on the calendar, simply called 'Mountain Day' to underscore no state involvement in a religious festival.

In 2009, apparently still not satisfied with the number of public holidays, the government came up with a further extended holiday period for the month of September. This was achieved by adding an extra day to the pre-existing 'Autumnal Equinox' and 'Respect for the Elderly' holidays. Together with the customary tagged-on weekend, in the introductory year this meant another five-day suspension of normal business lasting from September 19th until the 23rd. And because the color silver is synonymous with senior citizens in Japan, the new autumn holiday period was soon dubbed ‘Silver Week’.

One cannot help but wonder what the disruption caused by this plethora of prescribed collective holidays actually costs the nation in terms of reduced productivity and lost GDP, and yet no senior politician seems to connect the dots and grasp the bigger picture. Although a large number of public holidays is certainly not unique to Japan, regularly shutting down a whole nation to accommodate almost weeklong blocks of holidays probably is.

And these blocks mean blockages. For language schools, for instance, such holiday clusters present a formidable psychological barrier to new recruitment. From a month or so beforehand, prospective students put their plans on hold until life has returned to normal. A whole host of other industries must face similar obstacles to the efficient use of their time and resources.

Travel agents and hoteliers favor collective holidays. Whenever demand outstrips supply, it provides the perfect excuse for — and widespread public acceptance of — higher prices.

Japan Railways (JR) sees its Shinkansen bullet trains filled to well over capacity, with many travelers willing to fork out the same substantial fares they would normally pay for a comfortable seat in order to stand shoulder to shoulder for long distances in crowded aisles.

Gridlock on Japanese 'expressway' during a government-prescribed holidayTraffic on so-called expressways is backed up for tens of kilometers, and female highway bus passengers can be seen standing in line to use the cubicles of men’s rooms at rest stops.

Whenever one of these preordained holiday periods is upon us, it seems as if the whole population is caught up in a frenzy it could not escape even if it wanted to. Agonizingly predictably, each phase of the ritual mass exodus from major cities and the ensuing 'U-turn rush' is given blanket coverage on television newscasts, which thirst for padding material in the absence of regular reporters and the usual diet of crime reports and corporate or political scandal.

For the very young, summer holidays usually mean business as usual. Because the influence of school here is arguably greater than that of the family, even shorter family vacations while school is in session are exceedingly rare. Then, when the first semester finally finishes and school is officially out for the summer, kids are routinely assigned copious amounts of homework and test preparation. Many also attend school club activities, including sports events on dusty, grassless grounds in sizzling heat. To take good care of them, the teachers, too, are forced to work in the holidays, and both educators and parents seem convinced their children will get up to no good if left to their own devices. Since the academic year begins in April rather than September, the summer recess offers little of the healthy rest, relaxation, or sense of fulfillment after a job well done that children look forward to in European countries.

Only about one third of Japanese workers — overwhelmingly males — enjoy that much-touted lifetime employment. Traditionally, these have been the lucky ones reaping the full range of benefits and bonuses, their pay based on time served on the career escalator. On paper, at least, all such regular full-timers have a right to 18 days’ paid leave per year, including sick leave. In practice, however, the law is not strictly enforced, and far from everyone is bold enough to claim his or her rightful allowance — this for a number of reasons.

First and foremost, as a result of the systematic understaffing policies of cost-squeezing employers — who in their turn feel squeezed by cut-throat competition for new orders — most workers are conditioned to feel decidedly uncomfortable about abandoning their regular duties and thereby increasing the burden on the rest of the team. Secondly, it is assumed that those who show so little solidarity as to take prolonged time off for personal reasons cannot be counted on to put the company’s interests first. This is likely to have a negative influence on prospects for promotion. Thirdly, some employees fear that if it can be demonstrated that their active participation in the day-to-day running of the company is somehow dispensable, they may eventually not have any job to come back to.

Clearly, hardworking Japanese deserve a better deal when it comes to scheduling their annual vacations. Under the current system of prescribed collective holidays, stress on the job is merely being swapped for stress on the highway. Moreover, apart from the travel industry, who is actually benefitting from the status quo? While the government may have increased the quantity of work-free days on offer, until it also enhances their quality, it will, in this author’s view, not be able to achieve its other declared goals of stimulating the economy and persuading people to part with more of their hard-earned cash.

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