Behind Japan's reluctance to take holidays

Until companies work to remove the cultural stigma attached to taking time off, the average Japanese worker will continue to struggle to fully recharge.

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock

Last place. According to a recent Ipsos’ Global Advisor Survey, that’s where Japanese employees ranked amongst the 27 countries surveyed in terms of using up allotted vacation days, as well as in taking at least one week away from home. And, even when they do go on vacation, Japanese employees are the second most likely to check work messages and emails while on holiday.

At first glance, the results seem to confirm the standard perception of the Japanese employee as a workaholic slave to his/her job, unable or unwilling to take holiday, even when provided. Yup, those inscrutable, workaholic Japanese, one is tempted to conclude. But, as always, cultural context can help explain the humans behind the numbers.

Firstly, we need to understand how holiday time works for most Japanese workers. Unlike in the U.S. where you have separate allocations of “vacation days”, “personal days” and “sick days”, in Japan, all of these are grouped together as kyuuka.  If you get 10 of these days a year, you are not going to readily use them up in one go. You will need to hold on to some of them for illness, family emergencies and other commitments (weddings, funerals, etc.). Beyond childcare needs for working parents, in the context of the rapidly aging society that is today’s Japan, many people will need to set aside time for care-giving of elderly family members. Thus, these “kyuuka” days are not truly “vacation days.”  Rather, they are paid time off to manage the realities of living.

Japan ranks at the bottom for the question: "I use up all of my vacation days that I am given".

Social pressure and the great concern to avoid causing meiwaku (inconvenience/bother) to others may also explain the hesitance to use up one’s ‘vacation days’. There is the perception that, while one is out on holiday, one’s colleagues will have to absorb the additional work. The obligatory gifts brought back to the office from one’s travels are a form of apology for the inconvenience that one’s absence may have caused.  And, for those in client-facing positions, meiwaku will also be imposed upon clients.  The extreme customer-first orientation of Japanese culture makes the idea that a client can wait utterly unacceptable.  Taking more than one week of holiday during times when others would be working, especially clients, feels unimaginably indulgent within the Japanese social and corporate context. 

Thus, the perception that one’s holiday is an absolute right to be taken, rather than a nice-to-have, is far weaker in Japan that in most other industrialised countries. In Japan, it really is hard to take all of one’s allotted time because social pressure is just too high to overcome. According to the survey, this is true across men and women and across age groups.

Before we feel too sorry for the Japanese employee, let’s not forget about national holidays. Japan has 16 national holidays, compared to 11 in the U.S. and 8 in the U.K. In fact, the new national holiday of Mountain Day was added to the calendar just two years ago. Additionally, there are 3-5 days that Japanese employees are allocated for the obon summer vacation and another 4-5 days for New Year’s. Because one’s co-workers are also on holiday during these collective holidays, one can truly relax and enjoy the time off with a feeling of blissful anshinkan (sense of safety).

"This year, I have spent or I will spend at least one full week away from my home on a vacation."

What can this mean for marketers? For those in the travel industry, full-time working Japanese travelers have distinct goals and needs for their holidays around 1. length of holiday—no more than one week to pack it all in; 2. Motivations—escape, relaxation, reset and 3. planning—easy, worry-free, low-risk. Today’s working Japanese are not interested in the completely off-the-shelf packaged sightseeing tours of their parents’ generation.  They want less rush and bustle and more true experience, with ways to make the experience uniquely their own. Those marketers who can maximise experience within these constraints will be well-positioned to appeal.

Understanding the details of the cultural context reveals that the hesitance to take holiday is not necessarily a reflection of a comparatively more workaholic mindset of the Japanese employee. Rather, the cultural context creates hurdles to taking time off outside of the shared time off provided by collective holidays. Until Japanese employers value the productivity and creative thinking that employees bring back once refreshed by a substantive vacation, the individual is unable to change their behaviour.

Deanna Elstrom is senior director of strategic insights and Fumiya Shirahama is senior research executive at Ipsos Japan.

Source:
Campaign Japan

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