Tokyo — Hajime Okada had an unprecedented experience last year: He took seven consecutive days of summer vacation. ''I'd never been able to have more than three or four days off together in the summer before,'' the travel agency worker recalled.
Currently, he has 20 days of annual paid leave but takes the bulk of this in bits and pieces during the winter. The seasonal nature of his work partly explains this, but a long summer vacation is still a fairly rare experience for any type of Japanese worker.
This is backed up by a poll just released by a private industry and labor research institute showing Japanese company employees will take an average 5.1 days of vacation this year.
Only about 5 percent of the companies surveyed planned to give their workers more than 10 days' break, while 23.7 percent were ready to go as far as one week.
It definitely depends on the company. Firms with more than 1,000 employees were reported giving an average 5.6 days summer break, while firms employing fewer than 300 could afford only 4.7 days.
Taking a holiday, in fact, is a very complicated business that is closely related to Japanese cultural habits. Firms operating on a five-day working week are still in the minority - although a cautious decision by city banks to take one Saturday off a month starting in August could accelerate the trend.
A steadily growing number of manufacturing firms are closing down entirely for a few days during the summer. But a prolonged business recession has made it difficult for more than a very prosperous few to risk this for longer than a week. Mostly it's a matter of the individual worker arranging his vacation time to cause the least disruption to the company operation.
Negotiations on paid leave are almost as important as salary increases in annual labor-management negotiations, according to union official Teruo Mizumoto.
His company, with several thousand employees, is regarded as one of the more beneficent. On paper, it gives 20 days paid leave to employees with at least one year's service, rising to 22 days after 10 years, and 25 days after 20 years on the job.
It also offers holiday bonuses for long service. There are a number of holidays, some paid, some not. The argument between labor and management each year is over this issue of ''to pay or not to pay,'' said Mizumoto.
For example, there are 14 public days annually designated by the government, of which the most important is New Year's Day. To make it a decent break, most companies close down around Dec. 29 and do not reopen until Jan. 3.
''New Year's Day, of course, was a paid holiday, but after years of negotiations we have finally got company agreement to add New Year's Eve,'' Mizumoto said.
But worker interest in more holidays has always to be tempered by an acute awareness of the company's overall financial well-being.
''If we press for more holidays, the company would either have to employ more people to cover the gaps or cut back on production, both of which would damage profitability,'' the union official admitted, sounding more like a management executive.
There is a difference between theory and practice at work in the Japanese holiday system, electronics engineer Nobuo Kishimoto explained: ''In theory, I have 20 days of paid leave a year, and I could take them altogether. In practice , it's rare for me to have more than three days off at one time, and I rarely ever take my full allocation of holidays in any year.
''There is a lot of self-regulation involving a sort of social consciousness. A Japanese worker thinks: 'If I take a week or so off work, that will place a greater burden on my colleagues, so I cannot do it.'
''Of course, if I want to stand up for my rights, there is nothing anyone in the company can do about it. But it would be a black mark that could damage my career prospects.''
This thinking explains why many Japanese workers use up their paid vacation time only if they get sick, Kishimoto claimed.
But when workers do take a break, what do they do with their free time?
Not much, it seems. A recent government survey found that if they took a day off during the week, 24 percent ''did nothing at all,'' while 65 percent read a newspaper or magazine, listened to the radio, or watched television. At weekends , the comparative figures were 24 and 43 percent. When they had three or more consecutive holidays, 21 percent still did nothing, 29 percent watched television or read, 20 percent took an overnight trip, and 18 percent went on a one-day excursion.
But there is a discernible trend toward more activity. Among younger people, sailing, wind surfing, and tennis are boom sports. More and more people of all ages are jogging, while tennis or jazz dance are ''in'' activities for figure-conscious women.
Travel, domestic and international, however, is in a slump. Domestically, high prices are a major factor - for a Tokyo family of four to make an overnight trip to Kyoto 500 kilometers (310 miles) away, for example, the cost is equivalent to one round-trip air ticket to the United States or Europe.
As far as international travel is concerned, ''Most people can save enough money, but they can rarely get enough holidays to make such a trip worthwhile,'' an executive of the Japan Travel Bureau said.
Summing up, labor affairs analyst Ichiro Kagawa commented: ''There are two basic aspects to the problem. For large companies, it is an issue of how to string holidays together for a longer break, but for workers in small companies it is still a matter of getting any sort of holiday.''
Last year, employees of large companies took an average of 104.2 days off (including weekends, holidays, and vacations), while workers in small firms managed only 91.3 days, he pointed out.
Kagawa detects a gradual change, however, impelled by the fact that ''younger workers are less faithful to the company in general than their seniors.''
Yet a prolonged business recession and higher unemployment could change such free-and-easy attitudes. A survey published last week by the Junior Executive Council of Japan found 79 percent of new company employees (hired in April) more than willing to comply with a management request to work overtime, even if it meant breaking a date with their lady love.
This was 10 percent more than a similar poll a decade ago, reflecting concerns about job security, a council spokesman said.