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Support the economy — take a vacation

by Philip Brasor

If all you knew about Japan was what you saw on Japanese TV, you might think the Japanese are the most well-traveled citizens in the world. No other broadcast culture offers as many travel programs in which happy-go-lucky celebrity guides see the sights, interact freely with the natives and, most importantly, sample the local cuisine.

Though travel programs have been a TV fixture for decades, the kind described above developed during the late ’80s, when the Japanese economy seemed unstoppable and the future glorious. Everyone knew that the average Japanese worked too much, but that was going to change. American and European gaiatsu and domestic white papers advocated two-day weekends and, more importantly, long individual vacations that could be taken at the worker’s discretion rather than the employer’s. It never happened.

You’d get a much truer idea of the way Japanese people travel if you watched TV during the Bon vacation period, which is currently underway. TV news reports invariably start off with how many more people are stuffing Narita Airport compared to last year (a 6.1 percent increase) and how long the traffic jam is on the Tohoku Expressway (56 km, at peak).

As a former Japanese co-worker once told me when I complained about the lack of long vacations, the preference for package tours and the cramped, expensive travel conditions, “Japanese are bad at vacations.”

The problem, however, is not innate but structural. The vacation crunch takes on a desperate cast as the nation continues to restructure economically. Lack of free time was justifiable during the great economic miracle, when everybody had to work hard for the greater benefit of society, but with the end of the bubble, the dismantling of the lifetime employment system and the rapid rise of the service sector, vacation-phobia points not to a lack of free time but rather a lack of nerve and imagination.

Last week, the Asahi Shimbun ran a series on its editorial page in which five prominent men were asked for their personal “theory” of vacationing — not so much how they spend their vacations (which they described), but their insight into the meaning of “free time.”

According to financial analyst and author Peter Tasker (who plans to spend an entire month in the south of France), the lack of long, flexible vacations in Japan is, in fact, a serious economic weakness. Tasker, an Englishman who once worked for Suntory and who has lived here for 18 years, makes the usual points about how, since the most important social unit in Japan is the corporation, vacations are geared for companies rather than families or individuals.

He finds fault with the government’s effort to ensure free time with national holidays and the new policy of “happy Mondays” (three-day weekends). Holidays granted from above (and connected to ideology or culture, such as the Emperor’s birthday or the Constitution) counteract the feeling of freedom that holidays should satisfy.

Tetsuo Ihara, a professor of economics at Keio University, cites the lack of job mobility as the key factor in preventing a more liberal concept of leisure from taking root in Japan. One’s position in a company is paramount and permanent, and thus it is impossible to delegate one’s tasks to someone else. Under such circumstances, how can an employee take time off without hurting his performance? Before people can feel comfortable with long, European-style vacations, they have to change their view of work.

These ideas were being discussed 10 years ago. Why haven’t they been acted upon? To Tsutomu Shida, the 65-year-old president of Shidax, a food service company, and another opinion maker interviewed for the series, free time is all well and good, but in these troubled financial times, it should not be granted at the expense of the company’s well-being.

A self-made man who built his company up from a single restaurant to a major corporation and who still works 365 days a year, Shida doesn’t see much merit in vacations. He mentions the “quality” of free time as being more important than the “quantity,” and says, “If a company goes bankrupt, the employee only loses his salary. But the owner loses everything.”

In the end, workers, who are already nervous about restructuring and unemployment, are asked to keep the vacation status quo until the economy gets back on track.

The media and, in turn, the nation has bought this line of thinking, and the ironic thing is that it seems to have had an even more negative effect. The economy is stagnant because people don’t spend the money they have. Ihara points out that leisure remains the great untapped consumer resource in Japan.

The media love to report on the alarming rise in the number of furiita, young people who earn money by going from one part-time job to another.

Though many furiita do so because they are unable to find permanent employment, others just don’t want to be tied down to companies. They understand that once they start working full time, they won’t be able to do what they want, so they work at one job for a time, quit, travel as much as they want, and then get another job, repeating the cycle.

These young people are usually characterized as being outside of normal society. But who benefits society more, the person who works hard but never spends her money, or the person who works as much as she wants to and spreads her earnings around?

Who is happier?