Europe is on holiday. Go to Paris and you will find half the restaurants shut. Many industries close down for weeks, and their workers flock to holiday resorts. Britain is not much different from the rest of Europe in this respect — although British firms tend to stagger holidays more than in other European countries — and in financial services and senior positions in industry, very long hours are being worked. British resorts are less crowded, partly because of sterling prices but mainly because Britain’s summer this year has been predominantly cool, cloudy and unsettled.

The newspapers have been thin, and sometimes it seems as if the editors are struggling to find anything worthwhile to report on the home front. The Blairs have begun their annual holiday in Tuscany after a silly row with the press about the provision of a photo opportunity. In the absence of responsible leaders, the Conservative opposition has attempted to vilify Cherie Blair, declaring that she is interfering in politics because she wrote an article for The Daily Telegraph supporting the application of European human-rights rules in Britain. Why shouldn’t the prime minister’s wife be allowed to hold and express political opinions? She is, after all, a successful lawyer specializing in employment law. Sensibly, the Labor Party has treated this cheap, silly slander with the contempt it deserves.

If Britain is cool, Japan seems to have had record heat and typhoons. Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori has doubtless been feeling the political heat. The appointment of Kimitaka Kuze as head of the Financial Reconstruction Commission was a bad mistake, as Mori knew of Kuze’s financial links. Hideyuki Aizawa, Kuze’s successor, may be a “safe pair of hands,” but at 81 he is hardly likely to be full of ideas and vigor. Once again, the response to a political crisis has been to call for help from the gerontocracy. The opposition seems powerless to dislodge Mori, who sticks to the principle that the best answer to a crisis is first, to pretend that it doesn’t exist, and second, that if it does, spend lots more taxpayers’ money with the aim of keeping your cronies and supporters happy.

The Asahi Shimbun recently published figures culled from Liberal Democratic Party records of the party’s largest supporting groups. The largest was one representing heads of Japanese post offices, the second was one representing Japanese dentists and the third represented Japanese nurses. The fourth was the wealthy religious group MOA International, while the fifth was a group with connections to the construction industry. The groups cover a wide range of people and industries opposed to the sort of reforms Japan needs.

Mori and his Cabinet have faced some awkward questioning in the Diet, but perhaps because of their wide support base, the heat, the holidays and popular cynicism in Japan about politicians there does not seem to have been any effective agitation against Mori’s government — which in most other parliamentary democracies would surely have been forced out of power.

In the United States, the scene is very different. The Americans take many fewer holidays than the Europeans. Indeed, the U.S. has become almost as workaholic a nation as Japan. The two major parties are squaring up for an election that looks likely to be tough and probably nasty. This election is not being fought over foreign-policy issues, but fortunately, both main parties seem committed to developing world trade and supporting the peace process in the Middle East. The biggest issue for the world at large is likely to concern American efforts to develop and establish a nuclear shield against “rogue states.” Nor is their much real controversy about running the economy, which, thanks to Alan Greenspan, good luck and U.S. enterprise, may yet achieve a soft landing. The battles will be over taxes and social issues, with both parties attempting to win over the center. This is what politics has become also in most Western European countries.

Are Europeans unwise to indulge in such long holidays while the rest of the world goes on working? Personally, I think that every sensible person needs a proper break from work, especially in the heat of summer. A day or two here and there is not enough. A total change of occupation and some sensible relaxation undoubtedly help everyone to feel reinvigorated and able to tackle new tasks more effectively. The problem with politicians and senior businessmen is that they take their work with them. They keep their mobile phones on all the time and even work on their laptops on the beach or by the pool. Children are inevitably neglected by the new breed of high-flying women executives, and family life suffers.

As far as Japanese companies are concerned, I have the impression that, even today, many executives don’t like to take proper holidays for fear others may take advantage of their absence and steal a march on them. They also fear that if the company can get by without them for a few weeks then questions will be asked about whether their position is really necessary. It is, however, being realized that in financial jobs in particular, problems, mistakes and instances of fraud only come to light if another person has to cover someone’s work for a substantial period. In many firms, if only to satisfy the regulatory authorities, at least two weeks consecutive holiday is a company requirement. In my view, government departments and all companies should make the taking of leave compulsory. If someone cannot cope with his workload within reasonable office hours and cannot take time off, there is something wrong with the organization and/or the individual.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.