Japan breaks from tradition on holidays

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WHO SAYS the Japanese are all work and no play, and don't know how to relax? Why, the Prime Minister himself, Kiichi Miyazawa, is scheduled to take 20 days of summer holidays this year, in the cool mountain resort of Karuizawa, west of Tokyo. This is all part of his new campaign to improve lifestyles in Asia's economic workhorse, according to his aides, who have leaked his holiday schedules to the press.

However, while Mr Miyazawa takes the mountain airs, most of his countrymen will still be sweating at their desks. According to Nikkeiren, the Japan Federation of Employers' Associations, the average Japanese worker will take 7.5 days holidays this summer, up from 6.1 days 10 years ago, but still far short of Mr Miyazawa's protracted break.

In a recent survey by another Tokyo think-tank, 40 per cent of respondents said they felt uncomfortable with the very concept of taking paid holidays, while 41 per cent said they would be 'at a loss if given a full month's holiday'.

A Japanese columnist recently pointed out the absurdity of several Japanese businessmen who were held hostage for a time in Baghdad during the Gulf war. When they were finally released they said the first thing they wanted to do was to get back to their companies.

This is not to say that all Japanese today still want to wed themselves to their work. The younger generation in particular is increasingly conscious of the disparity between the country's wealth and the standard of life: per capita, Japan's GNP is higher than any that ofother developed country except Switzerland, but you would not guess that on a commuter train to Tokyo in the morning rush-hour. Because of the rigid hierarchy that still obtains in companies and throughout society, changes in practice lag way behind changes in attitude. If the boss is going to take only one week's holiday, there is immense pressure on younger subordinates to do the same and at the same time. As a result, most Japanese only take about half their yearly holiday allowance of two to four weeks.

The same social pressures apply in keeping overtime levels high. Until the boss goes home, it is bad form for other employees in his office to leave, so many just sit around reading magazines or talking to friends on the phone after their real day's work is done.

The average Japanese worker puts in 2,052 hours a year, which is still 100 to 200 more hours than worked in the the West, and way above the government's target of 1,800 hours, which it hopes to achieve by 1996.

When holidays come in Japan, they are short, simultaneous bursts of mass migration which clog train stations and airports. The three traditional holidays are New Year, Golden Week in the spring, and the summer O-Bon festival, to remember ancestors and which is to start next week. Trains and flights have been booked out for weeks. One can only hope that Mr Miyazawa has already made his reservation.