The Japanese government is considering making it mandatory for workers to take at least five days of vacation time a year. Currently some 52% of paid leave granted to Japanese workers goes unused, according to a 2013 labor ministry survey; prime minister Shinzo Abe’s administration hopes to bring that number down to 30% by 2020, under legislation it is preparing to submit to the legislature.
Japan has long had a reputation for being one of the most overworked countries in the world. The term karoshi, or death by overwork, emerged in the 1990s when an increasing number of Japanese professionals were dying from heart attacks and strokes. Recent years have seen an epidemic of suicide, in part because of work-related stress: of 30,000 suicides in 2011, 10,000 were believed to be related to overwork, according to the police.
Moreover, a culture of long, punishing hours at the office deters many women from staying at their jobs, a trend that officials want to reverse to bolster Japan’s shrinking work force. “We must also reform the work style that places importance on the amount of time spent working, an orientation created by men,” Abe said in a speech in May. He vowed to give more consideration to “work-life balance [and] creating a society in which women shine.”
Japan ranks among the worst of developed countries for mandatory vacation time (though still ahead of the United States, which guarantees none at all). Japanese law requires companies give workers at least 10 days of paid leave and one day for every additional year of work. But companies are not required to pay their workers for public holidays.
The Japanese government has tried other things to help. The health ministry issued a guidance last year suggesting workers take an half-hour nap during the afternoon. Most recently, the government approved a new national holiday, “Mountain Day,” giving citizens “an opportunity to become closer to mountains and give thanks to their blessings.”