Expedia's 2016 Vacation Deprivation study of paid vacations in 28 countries revealed that the Japanese took 50 percent of paid vacation days, ranking right at the bottom of the list. In marginally better Korea, workers took 53 percent of paid leave. In contrast, Indian workers took 71 percent of their leave, while employees in Brazil, France, Spain, Austria and Hong Kong used all of the vacation days available to them.
The more surprising finding was that 47 percent of workers in Japan had no idea how paid vacation days they could take, compared with just 21 percent of Korean counterparts.
Yet, 88 percent of Japanese employees seek a good work-life balance. In Mynavi's annual survey of new graduate employees in 2016, more than half of respondents said they would prioritize their private lives over work professional commitments.
So, why don't the Japanese use their paid vacations? Is it because they consider long hours a virtue?
In 2016, a range of labor issues came to the fore in Japan, prompting a shift away from an employment model that served the nation well in postwar rebuilding through the bubble economy era. The move likely demonstrated that people increasingly value diverse lifestyles—the quality of life—over unquestioning service to their employers.
While the Japanese are lousy leisure takers, I predict that they will get better in that regard in 2017 as employers roll out working hours reforms and support programs.
Recruit Holdings, for instance, now allows employees to work from home for as many days as they like. Yahoo! Japan is mulling a three-day weekend. At the end of 2016, Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry announced its Premium Friday concept. Notwithstanding a mixed response, the concept could become a plank of the government's working hour reform policies. Japanese businesses have also announced events and initiatives to encourage personal consumption once people leave work at 3:00 p.m. on one Friday a month. Measures include sales campaigns for singles, family discount services, and happy hour discounts.
It is important to note that work commitments do not always explain refusals to take time off. Some have little better to do than commute. Others have no hobbies, feel unwanted at home, have no friends to spend time with, or simply have no spare money. But as worthwhile programs emerge and people become enlightened, more will cast aside feelings of guilt and take a rest.
Whatever happens, the challenge for marketers will remain will be to help companies and consumers alike to pursue happiness. In 2017, I look forward to seeing how the quality of life improves in Japanese through the power of marketing.
Miyako Hirano is knowledge and intelligence specialist at Ogilvy & Mather Japan
This article was originally published on Campaign Japan: 働き方改革で、日本人は「余暇上手」になるか