Mon, Feb 09, 2015 - Page 12 News List

It’s not working

With over 200 annual deaths caused by overwork, Japan mulls legislation that would hold employers legally responsible to ensure that their employees take holidays

By Yuri Kageyama  /  AP, TOKYO

In this file photo, people cross a Tokyo street. Legislation that will be submitted during the parliamentary session that began Jan. 26 aims to ensure workers get the rest they need.

Photo: Reuters

College-educated and gainfully employed 36-year-old Eriko Sekiguchi should be a sought after friend or date, planning nights on the town and faraway resort vacations. But she works in Japan, a nation where workaholic habits die hard.

Often toiling 14 hours a day for a major trading company, including early morning meetings and after-hours settai, or networking with clients, she used just eight of her 20 paid vacation days last year. Six of those days were for being sick.

“Nobody else uses their vacation days,” said Sekiguchi, who was so busy her interview with AP had to be rescheduled several times before she could pop out of the office.

The government wants to change all that.

Legislation that will be submitted during the parliamentary session that began Jan. 26 aims to ensure workers get the rest they need. In a break with past practice, it will become the legal responsibility of employers to ensure workers take their holidays.


Japan has been studying such legislation for years. There has been more impetus for change since 2012 as a consensus developed that the health, social and productivity costs of Japan’s extreme work ethic were too high.

Part of the problem has been that many people fear resentment from co-workers if they take days off, a real concern in a conformist culture that values harmony.

After all, in Japan, only wimps use up all their vacation days.

Most of the affected workers are “salarymen” or “OL” for office lady like Sekiguchi, so dedicated to their jobs they can’t seem to go home. They are the stereotypes of, and the power behind, Japan Inc.

That has come with its social costs. Sekiguchi worries she will never get married or even find a boyfriend, unless he happens to be in the office. She wishes companies would simply shut down now and then to allow workers to take days off without qualms. The workaholic lifestyle and related reluctance of couples to raise children have long been blamed as a factor behind the nose-diving birth rate that’s undermining the world’s third biggest economy.


Working literally to death is a tragedy so common that a term has been coined for it: karoshi. The government estimates there are 200 karoshi deaths a year from causes such as heart attacks or cerebral hemorrhaging after working long hours. It’s aware of many cases of mental depression and suicides from overwork not counted as karoshi.

About 22 percent of Japanese work more than 49 hours a week, compared with 16 percent of Americans, 11 percent of the French and Germans, according to data compiled by the Japanese government. South Koreans seem even more workaholic, at 35 percent.

Barely half the vacation days allotted to Japanese workers are ever taken, an average of nine days per individual a year.

The problem in Japan in some ways parallels the situation of American workers, many of whom don’t get guaranteed paid vacations at all. But those who get them usually do take all or most of them.

Japanese must use their vacations for sick days, although a separate law guarantees two-thirds of their wages if they get seriously ill and take extended days off.

That means workers save two or three vacation days for fear of catching a cold or some other minor illness so they can stay home, said Yuu Wakebe, the health and labor ministry official overseeing such standards.

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