TOKYO — College-educated and gainfully employed 36-year-old Eriko Sekiguchi should be a sought after friend or date, planning nights on the town and faraway resort vacations. But she works in Japan, a nation where workaholic habits die hard.
Often toiling 14 hours a day for a major trading company, including early morning meetings and after-hours “settai,” or networking with clients, she used just eight of her 20 paid vacation days last year. Six of those days were for being sick.
“Nobody else uses their vacation days,” said Sekiguchi, who was so busy her interview with The Associated Press had to be rescheduled several times before she could pop out of the office.
The government wants to change all that.
Legislation that will be submitted during the parliamentary session that began Jan. 26 aims to ensure workers get the rest they need. In a break with past practice, it will become the legal responsibility of employers to ensure workers take their holidays.
Japan has been studying such legislation for years. There has been more impetus for change since 2012 as a consensus developed that the health, social and productivity costs of Japan’s extreme work ethic were too high.
Part of the problem has been that many people fear resentment from coworkers if they take days off, a real concern in a conformist culture that values harmony.
Working literally to death is a tragedy so common that a term has been coined for it: “karoshi.” The government estimates there are 200 karoshi deaths a year from causes such as heart attacks or cerebral hemorrhaging after working long hours. It’s aware of many cases of mental depression and suicides from overwork not counted as karoshi.