Language | BILINGUAL

Speaking up in Japanese for quality time off work

by Kaori Shoji

Contributing Writer

Decades ago, the mid-1980s to be exact, I complained to my mom that my dad worked too much. Like legions of middle-aged Japanese salarymen, my father was never home before 9 p.m. and spent his weekends on 海外出張 (kaigai shucchō, overseas business trips). He was also big on 休日出勤 (kyūjitsu shukkin, working on holidays) as he claimed the nearly empty office helped him to concentrate. Needless to say, he never took a vacation.

When I pointed these things out, my mom would just roll her eyes and mumble something about how 日本経済はみんなが休まないから回っている (Nihon keizai wa minna ga yasumanai kara mawatte-iru, The Japanese economy runs on the fact that no one rests).

Some 30 years later and the 日本経済 (nihon keizai, Japanese economy) has shifted gears from a monstrous machine that feeds off workaholics like my father, to a more humane and ethical model — or so the government would have us believe.

The administration of Shinzo Abe mandated 働き方改革 (hatarakikata kaikaku, work-style reform) that officially kicked in last month and is supposed to protect workers from the incessant demands of the 企業 (kigyō, corporation). Despite its lofty aims, however, there are still a lot of 賛否両論 (sanpi ryōron, arguments for and against).

On the surface, it seems the reform favors the workers, as 残業 (zangyō, overtime) over a total of 45 hours per month is banned across the board. But during 繁忙期 (hanbōki, busy times) that magic number of 45 suddenly soars to 100 hours per month, and an average of 80 hours over the course of several busy months.

In other words, if there’s extra work to be done, the law sides with the 企業 over the workers. Hey, at least we’re getting 残業代 (zangyō-dai, overtime pay) for those extra hours. The 改革 (kaikaku, reforms) stipulate that 残業 (zangyō, overtime) must be compensated, whereas five years ago サービス残業 (sābisu zangyō, unpaid overtime) was the norm for many office workers.

The 改革 also mandate that everyone be allowed five days of 有給 (yūkyū, paid vacation days) per year, and that employees are free to choose when to take that time off. Ten years ago, 有給 was reserved for 冠婚葬祭 (kankon sōsai, weddings and funerals), especially the latter, which are often held on weekdays. Nowadays, many companies deem such important events as exempt from 有給, so, theoretically, everyone is free to take a day off to go see “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

それができたらね (Sore ga dekitara ne, If only we could do that). Despite the reforms, company heads tend to view 有給 as a privilege rather than a right for workers. As such, talking outright about going to the movies is not the wisest thing. Reform or no reform, the best and most inoffensive excuse for taking a day off is 病欠 (byōketsu, sick leave).

If you’re going to take off three days or more, most companies require a 有給休暇申請書 (yūkyū kyūka shinsei-sho, paid vacation application form) at least a week in advance. I advise this approach: A couple of weeks before, float the idea that you’re thinking of taking time off by saying うーん、休みをとりたいなあ (Uun, yasumi o toritai naa, Hmm, I’d like to take a vacation) loud enough for your co-workers to hear. Then, drop a 休みをとりたいと思っているんだよね (Yasumi o toritai to omotte-iru-n-da yo ne, I’m thinking of taking a vacation) in a conversation or two around the coffee machine. With your co-workers prepared for the extra work, head to the boss and say the more polite, 有給休暇をとらせていただきたいのですが (Yūkyū kyūka o torasete-itadakitai-no-desu ga, I’d like for you to let me take a vacation …).

That strategy of saying you’d like something or like to do something followed with の/んですが on the end (the が pronounced with a nasal “nga” rather than the harder “ga“), basically allows the listener to decide the best way to answer your request and sounds polite. You can also use it to ask for train tickets or directions: すみません、東京駅に行きたいんですが (Sumimasen, Tōkyō eki ni ikitai-n-desu ga, Excuse me, I’d like to go to Tokyo Station). It works every time.

And of course, being polite is your greatest weapon in the Japanese workplace. Memorize phrases like お疲れさまです (o-tsukaresama desu, I appreciate your hard work) for when you write an email to a colleague, see a co-worker in the hallway or call it a day — just don’t say it on the phone while you’re lying on the beach.

The most useful phrase, however, is probably お先に失礼します(o-saki ni shitsurei shimasu, allow me to excuse myself) for when you leave the office a good 90 minutes before everyone else. Though the 働き方改革 encourages 定時退社 (teiji taisha, leaving work on time), most Japanese will still stay an extra hour-and-a-half — if not more. Otherwise, as most people claim, 仕事が終わらない (shigoto ga owaranai, the work won’t get done).

And with that, I’m done. Now, onto a midnight screening of “Bohemian Rhapsody.”