Japan creates new national holiday for ‘overworked’ population

The Sideshow

Around this time each year, millions of Americans are enjoying a three-day weekend heading into Memorial Day.

It’s one of just 10 national holidays for a country that prides itself on a world-renowned work ethic.

But in Japan, the government just unveiled its 16th national holiday. Does that make Japan a holiday-happy nation compared with the U.S.? Not exactly.

Officially beginning on Aug. 11, 2016, Mountain Day was ostensibly created to recognize Japan’s culturally significant mountainous regions. But The Diplomat reports that the holiday was actually most likely created to put a dent in Japan’s “overworked” population, which largely refuses to use its government protected vacation time. A recent Wall Street Journal article says the average Japanese worker only uses 8.6 of his or her paid vacation days each year.

"In Japan, there is of course paid vacation, but people don't take it," Seishiro Eto, a member of Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party, which led support for the new holiday, told the WSJ. "I hope with Mountain Day, people will be able to take more of their vacation."

By comparison, workers in the U.S. use an average of 10 of their 14 paid vacation days each year. However, a 2013 “ Vacation Deprivation Study” from Expedia.com says that still amounts to a staggering 577,212,000 unused annual vacation days in the U.S.

And the workaholic approach may not even be as effective as some think. After all, France has the largest amount of guaranteed time off of any major industrialized nation, yet its worker productivity is also among the world’s highest.

“When you have a longer working day, at some point because you’re becoming tired, it decreases your productivity,” French economist Renaud Bourlès told Businessweek.

Nonetheless, mandatory vacation days may not be a perfect solution. The Diplomat notes that mandatory holidays can create headaches for a workforce all taking the day off together. In theory, when employees voluntarily choose their vacation days, the dip in the workforce is more evenly distributed over the year. But when everyone is taking the same national holidays, people are left with congested roads and overbooked flights during what is meant as a window of relaxation.

In the U.S. 77 percent of all private companies offer paid vacation and holidays although federal law does not require them to do so. That’s still better than Japan, where most workers are not paid for their mandatory holiday days off.

The concept of being overworked is so prevalent in Japan that the country has its own word for people who die of heart attacks and other ailments directly attributed to excessive labor — karoshi. The word literally translates to “death from overwork.”

In recent years, karoshi has broadened its meaning to include Japanese “salarymen” who commit suicide as a result of the emotional distress from working too much and under uncertain conditions. A 2012 Pulitzer Center investigation outlined a scenario that might sound unsettlingly familiar to many American workers:

“With the recession of the 1990s, many Japanese companies departed from the tradition of lifetime employment and went through massive layoffs, replacing costly full-time workers with low-paid temporary workers who have no benefits or job security. As a result, salarymen increasingly work longer hours because of a shortage of manpower and the fear of losing jobs.”

Follow Eric Pfeiffer on Twitter (@ericpfeiffer)