Summertime ... and Japanese are busy working. In face of strong work ethic and tradition, concept of leisure alters slowly

When Ryuji Uchiyama was a child, he always wished his father could take a longer vacation so he could spend more time with him. But the longest summer vacation he can recall was four days. Today, at the age of 25, Mr. Uchiyama finds himself in his father's shoes. His summer vacation this year was four days. ``I thought my father never wanted to take a long vacation because he was so madly in love with his work,'' recalls Uchiyama, a curly haired athlete. ``But now I have come to understand that he did not have a choice.''

In the days of post-war reconstruction, working hard was the essence of the Japanese national identity. Today, the government tells people to work less, enjoy their hard-won leisure, and spend more money. The younger generation, born in affluence, is depicted as a ``new type'' of Japanese, less willing to devote all to the demands of work. Mr. Uchiyama is evidence, however, that despite government encouragement, the generational change is far less than meets the eye.

The Ministry of Labor, since last year, has launched a project to promote longer vacations. The ministry has put up posters in train stations and company lounges encouraging workers to take longer vacations.

Just recently, Labor Minister Takushi Hirai himself requested company officials to allow their workers longer vacations. Despite such efforts, the ministry was shocked by a report showing that the average number of days taken off last year actually went down from that of the previous year.

``Of course, if we have a choice, we would rather not work and enjoy other things,'' explains Hiroshi Takahashi, director of the Working Hour Reduction Center at Sohyo, Japan's largest trade union federation. ``They say Japan is now one of the richest countries in the world. But in reality, Japan's socio-economic infrastructure still is so weak it can't support long vacations. A month off in the summer is still a dream for Japanese workers.''

Japanese workers annually work 20 days more than average Americans and 45 days more than West Germans, the Labor Ministry estimates. Last year Japanese workers took 7.5 days off on the average, even though they were entitled to 14.9 days.

``It must be hard for foreigners to believe that most Japanese workers are not using half of their given vacations every year,'' says Motoyoshi Miyano, managing director of the Leisure Promotion Center, an affiliate of the Ministry of International Trade and Industry. Mr. Miyano confesses that even within his own organization, which is supposed to encourage long holidays, he is having difficulty getting his workers to take a vacation.

Experts blame companies, the government, and workers for this situation. The most common reason workers hesitate to use all the rest days coming to them is, according to the labor ministry survey, is that they are afraid of work piling up while they are away. Also, many are concerned about the troubles their long absence might cause their colleagues.

``I probably can take 14 days altogether if I insist on it,'' Uchiyama says. ``But if I do, the relationship with my colleagues as well as with my boss will be ruined.''

That, to Takahashi, is the core of the problem. ``When companies employ workers, they do not base themselves on the assumption that each worker will take his allotted vacation in full. So even if they may be telling workers they may take a full vacation, for most workers this is totally unrealistic given their work situation.''

Unlike in the West where each worker's responsibilities are clearly defined, explains Takahashi, in Japan, group efforts are more strongly emphasized. This means workers taking long vacations must either rely on a colleague's sacrifice, or work long hours later to catch up.

Besides the labor situation, Takahashi also adds steep leisure costs as a crucial reason for the reluctance to take vacations. Leisure costs - including transportation, hotels, and sports facilities - in Japan are nearly four times those of the US, according to Takahashi. ``Many people simply can't afford to take a long vacation.''

Analysts say skyrocketing land prices are chiefly responsible for the high costs of leisure facilities. Takahashi concludes that companies and the government merely are paying lip service to the idea of longer holidays. ``How can they expect workers to take a month's vacation without setting up an environment that enables them to do so?'' he asked angrily.

And yet, for all these difficulties, the Japanese worker's concept of vacations is beginning to change.

``Japan became so rich so suddenly that most people don't know how to act like affluent people,'' said Taro Muraki, who directs the Labor Ministry's vacation promotion campaign. ``Still, I am assured that more and more young people are asking their bosses quite frankly for longer vacations. They will gradually influence our whole society to build a new consensus on this question.''

As a sign of change, Mr. Muraki said, manufacturing companies have become very popular among new college graduates. One of the chief reasons they cite is that manufacturers tend to give longer vacations.

Hiroaki Tanaka, who has worked for an automobile company for three years, says he is thinking of quitting the company. ``So many expectation are placed on each worker that we have no choice but to sacrifice our private lives,'' he complains. Mr. Tanaka, who likes scuba diving, said he has no time to indulge his hobby because he is so frequently required to work overtime and on weekends. ``If the choice is either to sacrifice my life for work or to sacrifice my work for my life, I will take the latter,'' he says defiantly.

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