Japanese Leave 9.3 Paid Vacation Days Unused Every Year – Why?

The Japanese employees take only 48.1% of the vacation days provided by the company, or 8.6 day out of 17.9 days. This interesting report has been just published by the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare of Japan. Although the figure has improved by 1.4% for the past three years, it’s still far from the government’s target of 70% by 2020.

Another a little bit old research by Expedia shows that Japan is the worst among the developed countries, of which France led the race at the almost full score of 95% or 36 days out of 38 (!) days. The US, which some may claim as one of the hardest working countries, has 13 vacation days, much less than Japan, but they still use 10 days or 77%.

So you may ask why Japanese work so hard with no play. Here are 3 reasons why they don’t (or can’t, according to them) use up their vacation days:

Reason #1: Lean Management

After decades of continuous improvements, down-sizing, restructuring and whatever the business trend you can name, the current workforce is “lean” to the point that any single employee taking a leave can impact the overall throughput of the organization. Like the Just In Time manufacturing system showing its weakness when shortage of only one part shuts down the entire production line, there is no buffer in the workload, which is based on the false assumption that everyone works 100% or even more. The management doesn’t see the fact that this assumption contradicts with their policy allowing their employees to take 18 days off out of their annual working days.

Reason #2: Peer and Self Pressure

Japanese team working culture encourages, or almost enforces, the team members to make up the loss of productivity caused by someone on vacation. For the already fully loaded “lean” team, this means they need to work extra hours to support your coworker’s (not your) vacation. Who wants to cancel a data appointment and stay late in the office because your colleague is going to have a week-long vacation in Hawaii? Then you as a Japanese with strong respect to the team work will think: If I take a vacation, the other team members will suffer. How can I do such a thing?

Reason #3: Lack of Alternative Social Model

Simply put, people don’t know what to do with these vacation days. Traditionally, the social model in corporate Japan is built on the formula that [your company] = [your community]. There is no such thing as “work life balance” because your work is your life (and therefore perfectly balanced!)  Although now it’s changing, there still are many people who don’t belong to any other community once leaving their workplace. If so, wouldn’t it better to give up your vacation days and to be considered as a good “team worker” instead?

Today’s lesson:

Work for a French employer.


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