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Japanese workers are taking more days off - well, one or two more

By Geoffrey MurraySpecial correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / June 14, 1983


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.

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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.