For foreign workers at Japanese companies, the chance to visit other parts of Japan while they’re here, as well as other exotic locations in Asia, may well seem irresistible. A couple of weeks touring snowy Hokkaido in winter, or soaking up the sun on a beach on Thailand’s Koh Samui sounds marvellous, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, the reality of corporate culture in Japan rarely allows for such extended pleasure.
How one perceives the way the Japanese take paid leave in Japan will very much depend upon where you’ve come from and the way things are done there; but working at a Japanese company may require you to revise the way you think about vacations and how you spend your free time. Then again, it might seem quite normal.
Comparing Statutory Paid Annual Leave
Workers in EU countries are guaranteed 20 paid days of vacation annually, though many member states improve on this figure or supplement it with national holidays, etc. In the UK, for example, all workers are legally entitled to around 28 days of paid leave; normally, the number of days worked per week is multiplied by 5.6 to arrive at a worker’s total paid vacation entitlement. Add to this the various paid bank holidays and seasonal breaks, and British workers can consider themselves rather fortunate. Quite how the insanity of Brexit will affect these rights in the future, remains to be seen.
Americans may well find the paid vacation system in Japan a little more familiar, as both countries offer a basic statutory entitlement of 10 days, plus national holidays. Japan has a lot of national holidays dotted throughout the calendar year and these have become very important factors in the way the Japanese take vacations, as we shall see a little later on.
Japan’s Statutory Paid Leave
Under Japan’s labour laws, all full time employees are guaranteed the minimum 10 days of paid annual leave per year after serving an initial 6 months of employment, irrespective of race or gender, and where they were present for at least 80% of the hours they were supposed to be working. Thereafter, additional days of paid vacation time are added for each subsequent year of service. For example, after 2.5 years of service, a worker’s annual entitlement will have risen to 12 days; after 4.5 years of service to 16 days; and finally flattening out to 20 days for 6.5 or more years of service.
Workers on part-time contracts are also entitled to paid annual leave depending on the number of days they normally work, and irrespective of the specified length of their contract/s or the number of contract renewals during the initial 6 month qualifying period.
Attitudes to Paid Leave
Whereas as many as 1 in 4 US workers do not take their full paid holiday entitlement for fear of losing their jobs, the perennial situation in Japan has been that many company workers don’t take their full annual entitlement for fear of letting down or inconveniencing colleagues! This is a peculiarly Japanese piece of corporate insanity that also sees workers staying at their desks until late rather than leave before the boss or anyone else, or voluntarily working overtime for no additional pay.
Only in Japan will you find the curious phenomenon of karōshi (過労死) – death from overwork; a fate most Westerners might expect to befall horses rather than people. It’s no joke either; as recently as 2013, the Japanese government, alarmed that people were only taking on average half of their paid annual leave, decided to introduce measures to raise that figure to 75% by 2020.
Now, I don’t believe this has to be the case for foreign workers at Japanese companies; I’ve never played that game, and I’d urge others not to either. We are not Japanese, and nobody should ever feel compelled to be that which they are not. Indeed, foreign workers will be ever more uniquely placed to affect some very necessary changes to the Japanese workplace in the coming decades.
Above all, one should remember that those labour laws I alluded to above are writ in stone and the rights of all full and part-time workers in Japan are very well protected. In fact, in some areas of industry and manufacturing, especially where union representation is traditionally strong, there may be a far more flexible and equitable attitude to annual leave. But the bottom line should always be to know one’s rights. Meanwhile, back in London’s Highgate cemetery, Karl Marx continues to spin in his grave.
As I stated above, national holidays assume great importance in the way the Japanese take time off work, but there’s no legal requirement for employers to pay their workers at these times. Having said that, no employer is going to dock your monthly pay every time a national holiday interrupts your contractual obligations.
For foreign residents, Japan’s national holidays and the reasons for them might seem confusing; perhaps it’s enough for most of us to see the red days on the calendar and know we can sleep in or spend a long weekend with friends. Then again, the frequency of national holidays in Japan helps to offset those meagre 10 days of mandatory paid holiday, and are often taken in combination with such paid leave, as at Golden Week, Obon and New Year.
Golden Week is a period between April 29 and May 5 that contains four public holidays. Most Japanese take paid holiday at this time, with many companies closing down altogether, making it the longest holiday period of the year. Two other Japanese national holidays that are observed for most or all of a week include New Year in January, and the August Obon Festival when the Japanese honour their ancestors.
The disadvantage to these longer holidays is that EVERYONE else is off work too, so the airports are a nightmare, the Shinkansen fully booked in advance, the highways are gridlocked and accommodation, if you can get it, is charging an arm and a leg. Yes, pick up any stone and squeeze it and blood will appear!
It might be worth noting that until Japan adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1873, Japanese national holidays and festivals followed the Chinese lunisolar calendar, and a few still do. However, in 1948 the first of the modern public holidays were established by the Pubic Holiday Law. Japanese national holidays appear to fall into three broad categories:
・Those Concerned with Honour and Respect
Notions of honour and respect are important in Japanese culture and many public holidays reflect this fact. These include: Coming of Age Day (2nd Monday, Jan); Children’s Day (May 5); Respect for the Aged Day (3rd Monday, Sept); Autumnal Equinox Day (Sept 22 or 23) to honour ancestors and remember the dead; and Labour Thanksgiving Day (Nov 23).
Although the Emperor is no longer worshipped as a god, great reverence still exists for the monarchy, as well as pride in the modern constitution. Holidays reflecting these notions include: Foundation Day (Feb 11); Shōwa Day (April 29), marking the start of Golden Week; Constitution Memorial Day (May 3); Health & Sports Day (2nd Monday, Oct); Culture Day (Nov 3); and the Emperor’s Birthday (Dec 23).
・Love of Nature
This is celebrated through several public holidays: Vernal Equinox Day (March 20 or 21); Greenery Day (May 4); Marine Day (3rd Monday, July); and Mountain Day (Aug 11), a new holiday since 2016, coinciding with the Obon holiday.
And finally, you might notice that some of Japan’s national holidays always fall on Mondays; this is because Japan introduced the Happy Monday system in 2000, moving four national holidays to Mondays to create more long weekends.
A Final Thought
As I suggested in my introduction, working at a Japanese company might require you to reconsider when and how you take your holidays. You might even find the statutory paid annual leave entitlement a negative point in deciding whether to work in Japan or not, in which case you should carefully consider what any prospective employer is offering in this respect. In all other respects, learn what your rights are and demand them if you believe you’re being unfairly exploited.
By Bill Ambler
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