Japan: Work Less and Save the Economy

Posted by: Kenji Hall on April 21, 2009

The Japanese government is entertaining some new ideas for getting consumers to dip into their savings. Here’s one: Penalize companies whose employees don’t take their vacations. The financial daily Nikkei says the government is considering revisions to accounting rules that would require companies to have cash reserves equivalent to employees’ unused holidays.

The steps would put Japanese accounting practices on par with U.S. standards. The system, known as vacation accrual, forces companies to treat vacation as part of their employees’ pay. When a worker who hasn’t taken vacation time decides to quit, the employer pays for the vacation days.

Breaking Japan’s sarariman of his workaholic ways could do wonders for the economy. After all, the country’s households have more than $14 trillion in assets, including nearly $8 trillion in bank savings, according to the latest Bank of Japan statistics. Most Japanese limit their vacations to the national holidays in early May, mid-August and at the end of the calendar year. (So many people travel at the same time that Japan’s media has terms for the mass exodus and return—kisei rasshu and yu-taan rasshu.) Having people spread out their holidays might also smooth out the seasonal spikes in tourism and lessen crowding in popular getaway spots.

In a global survey conducted in March and April, travel Web site Expedia.com found that 92% of Japanese workers don’t take all of their allotted vacations, compared to 34% in the U.S., 24% in Germany, 22% in France and 21% in Britain. Japan’s sarariman gets roughly 15 days of paid vacation but takes just seven. Contrast that to France, where workers get 38 days of vacation, or Germany, where they get 27; in both countries, they usually take all but two days. Among the countries polled, American had just 13 vacation days—the least—but used 11.

Why do Japanese deprive themselves of vacation time? Among Expedia survey respondents’ top reasons: They’re too busy or don’t feel right taking time off either because their co-workers and managers don’t or because it would create work for others. It’s not clear whether the top-down push would really change corporate culture and lead to a more balanced split between work and play. Some worry it would hit companies’ balance sheets at a time when they can hardly afford it, and weigh on productivity.

Accounting rule changes aren’t the only proposals on the table. Government officials are also looking into a system of staggered summer breaks for students and the possibility of more three-day weekends. The Japanese government estimates that vacation reforms could spur 12 trillion yen ($121 billion) in spending and generate some 1.5 million jobs.

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