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KIDS WEEK

Government mulls ‘Kids Week’ holiday to prompt overworked Japan to take paid leave

by

Staff Writer

The government is considering plans to create a holiday called “Kids Week,” in an ongoing effort to change the country’s workaholic culture and allow more time for families.

The hope is that the proposed holiday will boost private consumption and encourage workers to use their paid leave more.

So far, the public has been pessimistic, with many unconvinced that the initiative would do much to change the notorious corporate culture of excessive long hours, where many don’t take their paid holiday allowances

The following is a brief rundown of the government’s proposed initiative.

What is Kids Week?

It’s a weeklong holiday for schoolchildren slated to launch in fiscal 2018.

In the envisioned plan, public school holidays in July and August will be truncated by five days. To make up for the shorter summer break, a week of time off will be given at another time during the school year.

The timing of the Kids Week holiday will vary according to region. This would reduce the traffic jams or crowds often seen during the school summer break season, which would also be a benefit for people without school-aged children. The initiative could be a boon to the tourism industry by bringing a more steady flow of customers throughout the year.

The government also hopes the initiative will prompt workers to take more paid holidays, enjoy more time with their families and spend more money on traveling.

Mizuho Research Institute estimates that the new plan could boost private domestic travel consumption by about ¥400 billion if parents go on vacation during Kids Week.

Similar policies are already the norm in some European countries, including France and Germany, to alleviate overcrowded resorts and traffic jams.

Together with Kids Week, the government is set to urge companies to make their workers use three more paid holidays in fiscal 2018 compared with the current fiscal year.

Will Kids Week be effective?

The biggest hurdle will be whether parents can actually take days off from work during Kids Week. In the current corporate culture, many find it difficult to take paid vacations when they want, so experts are pessimistic that the initiative could effect significant change on people’s working styles.

A poll conducted by Yahoo News Japan in May after the idea was reported showed that about 66 percent of 172,030 responses were against the initiative. Some said there is just no way they can take a weeklong holiday together with their children.

Although employers, mainly large companies, are increasingly urging workers to take vacations, Japan still lags behind other developed nations when it comes to taking time off.

According to a survey conducted by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare on 4,520 companies nationwide, the percentage of annual paid leave taken by workers in 2015 stood at 48.7 percent, far below the government’s target of increasing the figure to 70 percent by 2020.

Small companies with 30 to 99 employees have the lowest proportion at 43.7 percent, compared with 54.7 percent at major companies with more than 1,000 workers.

A different annual study released by online travel company Expedia Inc. said Japanese are the most vacation-deprived workers among 28 surveyed countries.

While workers in France, Brazil, Spain, Austria and Hong Kong used all their given paid holidays, those in Japan only used half, according to the study conducted on 9,424 employees in 28 countries.

Why don’t Japanese workers take paid holidays?

Akio Doteuchi, a senior researcher at NLI Research Institute, pointed out that some refrain from taking paid holidays out of fear it could affect their evaluation and out of guilt for taking time off when their managers and colleagues are working.

“It’s both an issue of workers’ mentality as well as ways of management,” Doteuchi said.

In a 2016 labor ministry survey, more than 60 percent of respondents said they felt hesitant to take paid holidays. More than 70 percent felt that it would put a burden on co-workers, while 32 percent cited office environment as a reason for their reluctance.

Workers at small and medium-size firms also have difficulty using all of their paid leave due to a chronic shortage of manpower.

When do workers in Japan take vacations?

Public holidays effectively serve as substitutes for unused paid holidays, Doteuchi said.

With the latest addition of Mountain Day on Aug. 11 last year, Japan now has 16 public holidays a year, more than any of the other Group of Seven nations, including Britain with eight days and France with 11 days.

Workers taking long holidays together during the same period could be productive in manufacturing sectors, experts say. But as more people today work in different industries, there’s also an advantage in offering more flexibility in taking paid holidays rather than increasing public holidays, they say.

How have the government’s recent initiatives fared in changing work culture?

Not well.

The government introduced in 2015 the Yukatsu (evening activity) campaign, calling for an earlier start to the workday during the summer, so people can knock off work earlier and enjoy the evening with family and friends. But the practice has not taken root, especially in the private sector.

The same can be said about the Premium Friday campaign launched in February.

The program — designed to let people leave the office early, at 3 p.m., on the last Friday of each month — drew public attention at first, especially among restaurant and bar operators.

But four months on, the promise of the initiative has faded as many continue to spend their Friday evenings at the office.

The government on Friday set July and August as the months to boost work-life balance among national civil servants, encouraging them to implement Yukatsu and Premium Friday during the period.

Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Koichi Hagiuda gathered the ministries’ vice ministers at the Prime Minister’s Office on Friday and asked them to facilitate Yukatsu to reduce long working hours.

Yasuko Matoba, a senior researcher at Dai-ichi Life Research Institute, says such initiatives are important because they give opportunities for workers and companies to think about the status quo.

“It’s important for the government to take initiative to change (the working environment),” Matoba said, pointing out that some companies are actually letting workers quit work early on Fridays.