Some readers’ responses to Hifumi Okunuki’s June 19 Labor Pains column, “In ‘right-to-work’ Japan, employees should also have the right to rest“:

The pursuit of real leisure

Hifumi Okunuki calls for comments regarding Japanese workers’ right to rest. I agree with her criticism that workers’ statutory right to paid leave was undermined by the Supreme Court’s mistaken 1992 reversal of a High Court decision that supported workers’ right to take extended holidays. The Supreme Court instead ruled in favor of firms’ right to preserve “normal” operations.

While examples of judicial support for the nearly unimpeded exercise of employer authority are common in Japan, Okunuki’s argument — that “the point of paid leave is to free workers from unending toil with a long vacation designed to relax and refresh the body and mind” — does not go far enough. In fact, it shows a regrettable similarity to the court’s emphasis on work as the axis around which all else turns. In reality, leisure’s importance is far greater than workers’ legal right to rest and reproduce their labor power. It is the very basis of civilization.

That human civilization is built on a foundation of leisure is a truly radical insight, first elaborated by the German philosopher Josef Pieper in 1948. Amid the rubble and poverty of Germany’s WWII defeat, Pieper argued that although it seemed most urgent to provide jobs and rebuild the economy, it was even more important to rebuild the foundation of German society.

Pieper pointed out that the roots of modern leisure are derived from the Latin word schola, from which come the English and German words for school and scholar. It its original meaning, leisure was the inspiration for the liberal arts, the arts devoted to exploring the realm of freedom. The ancient Romans and Greeks had no word for work. There was only “leisure” and “not-leisure.” They engaged in “not-leisure” in order to “be at leisure.” That is, they worked to live.

Today Japanese, like many other denizens of industrial societies, live to work. Nearly everything is a job to be done and our jobs define us. Japanese universities are filled with “intellectual workers.” We value only that which requires struggle and hard work.

In this functional perspective, leisure is useful only insofar as it enables workers to work more. Moreover, much of what Japan calls rest is overpriced imitation of Western leisure, such as overseas travel, or sports, such as skiing and golf. The rest is mere entertainment, in which the machinery of amusement and media of mass distraction train the populace to be inattentive consumers.

Real leisure, on the other hand, is free, conscious activity that takes our lives as its object. In Pieper’s vision, leisure enables appreciation and contemplation of the divine; it is stillness and quiet in which we can see truths and apprehend the mysteries of existence.

Classical conceptions of leisure, like modern ideals of liberal education that are rooted in ancient notions of leisure, take it as axiomatic that the unexamined life is not worth living. Leisure is the basis of civilization because is it the source of insight and enlightenment about the human condition. Zen and Taoist adepts shared with Native American tribes and others the notion that special training is not required. True knowing requires only that one sit and look.

Hand in hand with this view of leisure as the basis of civilization came the celebration of our oneness with creation through festivals. The essence of festivity is sacrifice: Voluntary gifts offered freely show that abundance exists even in the midst of poverty. These festivals are occasions for fostering community. Persistent, loving care, such as farmers devote to their crops, is the basis of both cultivation and culture. This view implies that it is not long vacations that are important, though they are certainly desirable, but daily leisure cultivation.

Article 25 of Japan’s Constitution states that “All people shall have the right to maintain the minimum standards of wholesome and cultured living.” To my mind, this implies daily time for leisure, a guaranteed realm of freedom within which all people can participate in building the foundation of civilization.

Workers in the EU are protected from overwork by laws that guarantee a minimum of 11 hours between shifts at work. Japan, following the U.S. example, is inclined toward increasing deregulation of work-time rules, and schools and other institutions do a better job of preparing students for domination in organizational settings than for appreciation of divine mysteries or cultivation of the self.

That preparation poses real barriers to leisure in Japan. As Parkinson’s dictum states, “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” Japanese workers, especially those who are “regular employees,” seldom stop work at the official quitting time. Many appear to not even know when work officially stops. Instead, they think they should stay until the boss leaves, or until the last train.

It is estimated that most of the overtime worked in Japanese firms is uncompensated “service overtime.” Workers seem to fear spare time (yoka), for it connotes the possibility that more work could have been done, even if it is unpaid.

Devotion to work, laudable though it may be, comes at high cost. Recently family is sometimes cited as a justification for going home at quitting time. Certainly family is important and workers have roles to play at home. But family is not necessarily leisure. To construe it as such demeans leisure and reduces both family and leisure to subsidiaries of production. That family is one of the few justifications for taking time off work shows how dominant the production-reproduction scheme has become.

The economist Tim Jackson points out that our current way of living — pursuing endless growth on a finite planet — is inherently contradictory. He argues that instead of seeking ever higher labor productivity, we need to transition to a low-productivity economy of “care, craft and culture” whose benefits would include increased empathy and community, as well as less ecological impact.

In such an economy, people would work less and labor would recover value and dignity. The time gained by working less could go a long way to addressing the need in Japan for greater interpersonal intimacy and for meeting community care needs, including those of the very young and elderly. With adequate leisure time to contemplate and feel, Japanese workers could raise their eyes to look beyond work for identities and meanings of life.

The top-down approach mentioned by Okunuki will not fit the bill. Government attempts to prescribe leisure or legislate increased use of paid leave smack of coercion, which is antithetical to development of the increased respect for individuals and rights, and the opposite of leisure, which by definition is not coerced. Moreover, there is little reason to think that such legislation would be any more enforceable than other provisions of the Labor Standards Act.

Leisure leadership, education and examples are needed to orient people away from work as the center of life. Too often Japan’s leaders, including the Supreme Court, ignore the spirit of constitutional mandates. For Japanese, taking a month of paid holidays is so rare as to provoke litigation, but for my Scandinavian friends, one month away from work is scarcely time enough to begin to apprehend the truth of existence: Life is short.

No other apex predator works as hard as humans do. The more modern we become, the more we seem to act like rats in a behavioral experiment. But we are not rats; we should not race. Japanese workers’ rights should extend beyond mere rest to encompass the daily right to reaffirm leisure as the foundation of a civilized society. The country and the planet will both be better for it.

Professor of Sociology, Osaka University
Suita, Osaka

Work ethic is a social construction

I found Hifumi Okunuki’s column really fascinating and informative. It’s interesting to note that Slovenian philosopher Slavoj ?i?ek argues that the reason the Japanese don’t just change the official rule to explicitly state the tacitly agreed-to reality (i.e. that you can only take around 50 percent of your paid leave) is that humans thrive on unspoken understanding.

I would disagree with both ?i?ek and Okunuki’s implied assumption that there’s such a thing as a Japanese work ethic. I’d argue that that’s a social construction formed by exploitative employers and the corrupt, ineffectual “sweetheart” unions formed by (U.S. Occupation) GHQ after Japan’s real ones had been eradicated by the fascists. As late as the Meiji Period, the stereotype of Japanese workers was that they were lazy.


Working employees to death

I am an American working in Japan but my fiancee is Japanese. My own company gives me 11 days paid vacation but they “choose” five of those days so I really only get six. They use five of those days during summer vacation when I would normally have that time off anyway.

My company is also going to forbid workers from taking certain days off around holidays. For example, my company is not going to allow workers to take days off during Golden Week anymore. Many workers were doing so (most workers are foreigners) so they could get an entire week off instead of three days, working two days, then another three days.

My fiancee’s company is just downright horrible with paid vacations. Some of her coworkers have not taken a day off in four years. When asked why, I am told that their boss won’t allow it and the company will fire them if they do.

I asked her to take five days off just to go visit America but she refused. She said she would come back to no job. Her parents and friends told me the same thing. So I had to schedule a trip around O-bon and she got 3.5 days off.

It took every single ounce of convincing her to get her to ask her boss for 3.5 days. Her boss did say yes but she said if it had been 4 she would of lost her job. She knows this is wrong but she just tells me “shōga nai.

As an American it infuriates me to see companies driving their workers into the ground and then wondering why there is such a high suicide and depression rate. Her company has actually had meetings to discuss why depression and suicide is so high but according to her the meeting always finishes with, “We don’t know why.” I simply tell her it is because companies are literally killing their workers and not letting them take time off.

Don’t get me started on the mandatory overtime that she always has to do. She tells me that if she works 30 hours overtime she is seen as lazy and has to see a doctor, so she intentionally misreports her overtime to 50 percent of the actual number. So, in essence, she is working for free. All her coworkers do this.

Why is there such a fear of your employer here? Why does no one fight for their rights or to change the system?

She wants to leave her work and I want her to leave too. Unfortunately my salary right now is not enough to support us both. If I was in the U.S. it would be, but in Japan it isn’t . . .yet.

Japan needs to pass a bill to force companies to force their employees to use their paid holidays. If not, the rate of suicides will increase. With births being so low, an increase in suicide will just lead to even longer hours (and more suicides).


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