Mount Fuji

Can Japan still afford all those public holidays?

Japan officially boasts seventeen public holidays. In reality, it's 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 answer is fairly simple. For the average Japanese employee or small-business owner, taking a private vacation at a time of their own choosing is well nigh impossible. And for the many part-timers, who often put in a full eight hours a day, and others on short-term contracts hoping for an extension, remaining at the 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 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 its neighbor South Korea, Japan devotes little attention to its Christian minority. So, while the birthday of the Emperor is honored with a holiday on December 23rd, any observance of Christmas on the 25th remains firmly off the calendar.

Toward the end of April, shortly after the Japanese are supposed to have knuckled down to a new academic year, comes 'Golden Week', a set of four public holidays plus 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.

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 tag-on weekend, in the first year this meant another five-day suspension of normal business lasting from September 19th until the 23rd. Since the color silver is synonymous with senior citizens in Japan, the new fall holiday season was soon dubbed ‘Silver Week’.

One can't help but wonder what the disruption caused by such prescribed collective holidays actually costs the nation in terms of reduced productivity and lost GDP, and yet no senior politician or economist 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 truly are 'blocks' in both senses of the word. For English conversation schools or Eikaiwa, for example, 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, on the other hand, simply adore the collective holidays. Whenever demand far outstrips supply, it provides the perfect excuse for — and public acceptance of — higher prices.

Japan Railways (JR) sees its popular Shinkansen bullet trains filled to well over capacity, with many travelers willing to fork out the same substantial fares as usual just for the privilege of standing shoulder to shoulder in crowded aisles.

Gridlock on Japanese 'expressway' during a government-prescribed holidayTraffic on so-called expressways is backed up for tens of kilometers, and women are seen standing in line to use the cubicles of men’s rooms at many of the rest stops. With mirrors lining the walls, the only thing to prevent them from observing their menfolk battling increased stress at the urinals is their own disinterest.

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 the big 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 blow-by-blow crime reports, and corporate or political scandal.

For the very young, summer holidays usually mean business as usual. Because the influence of school in Japan 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 volunteer for school club activities, including sports events on dusty, grassless grounds in sizzling heat. Teachers, too, are forced to work in the holidays, and both educators and parents seem to worry constantly that their children will get up to no good if left to their own devices. So, with the academic year here beginning in April rather than September, the summer recess offers little of the healthy rest and relaxation, or the sense of fulfillment after a job well done, that children are blessed with in most other developed 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 negatively influence their prospects of promotion. Thirdly, some employees fear that if it can plainly be demonstrated 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 exchanged for stress on the highway. Moreover, apart from special interests in the travel industry, who actually benefits from the status quo? While the government may have succeeded in increasing 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 Japan’s economy, boosting GDP, and persuading people to part with more of their hard-earned cash.