A year ago when the Liberal Democratic Party reduced highway tolls to a maximum of ¥1,000 on designated expressways for passenger cars on weekends, the stated reason was to stimulate the economy, and to a certain extent it worked. Gas consumption went up and highway rest areas saw booming business.

But tourist destinations didn’t necessarily benefit, mainly because people who used the ¥1,000 toll as an excuse to get the family out of the house didn’t stay overnight anywhere. If families or even individuals took advantage of the lower tolls, it was for day excursions. There are many reasons for that, but the obvious one is that Japanese accommodations are most expensive on Saturday nights. In fact, a tourist industry symposium reported late last year that after the highway toll reduction went into effect there was a 6 percent drop in weekday tourist business, which had been gradually growing in recent years, and this drop was not necessarily compensated on the weekend.

For years, the tourist industry has been trying to boost demand for weekday travel, but it’s difficult in Japan where holiday periods are set in stone and full-time workers are still reluctant to ask for days off for reasons of recreation. The average full-time employee in Japan is entitled to 18 days of paid vacation a year, but only uses half that time. The symposium estimates that if all these workers used their paid vacations in full, the Japanese economy would benefit by ¥16 trillion and 1.88 million new jobs. You wouldn’t need foreign tourists if everyone took their rightful time off.

The key is to spread vacation time around more evenly, an idea that has been discussed for decades but which no one in a position of authority has ever done anything about, probably because it would require a huge cultural shift and not just the passage of a few laws to encourage people to take time off.

One solution would be to encourage schools to stagger their spring vacation periods, which is what they do in some European countries. After all, spring arrives in Kyushu earlier than it does in Hokkaido. But people expect to rest during Golden Week, the Obon break in August and New Year’s, when the bulk of travel plans are made and take place, and even if one person in a family or a group of close friends is willing to take a day off during an “off-season” period, it doesn’t mean others are. Scheduling can be difficult.

Consequently, a lot of travel agencies and tour companies offer special deals during the week and on Sunday nights in order to boost demand. Five travel groups who bring tourists to Awaji Island currently offer discounts of between 10 and 20 percent until March 18 for 38 facilities on the island. And apparently these sort of promotions are working.

Two weeks ago TV Tokyo’s Business Satellite reported that a lot of resorts are suddenly seeing more business on the weekdays thanks to what they refer to as setsuyaku-zukare, which translates as “exhaustion with saving money.” Not only retired people and older housewives are taking advantage of cheaper weekday and Sunday night rates at hotels and inns, but also full-time workers who apparently have decided that life is too short to worry about one’s reputation around the office. They’re taking their paid days off. If it means extra work for the guy in the next cubicle, well, that’s his tough luck.

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