Japanese, Determined to Relax, Fix on Fun With Usual Resolve

But guilt still shadows many who take time off to take it easy

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

THIS July, when Japan's tropical heat makes it difficult for even the Japanese to work, a landmark of leisure will open up in a bleak cityscape near Tokyo.

It's an indoor ski slope, perhaps the largest in the world, in which big snowflakes will be shot down from waterguns on the ceiling into a cavern kept at below-freezing temperature.

From afar, the Lalaport Ski Dome, as it is called, looks like a giant steel tongue rising 25 stories on one end. The slope runs for a third of a mile with both steep and gentle inclines, and not a blizzard or a tree in sight.

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The mammoth, $350 million structure, which includes a swimming pool, library, and other "pleasure centers," is the latest example of the Japanese working very hard to take it easy.

Amid all their riches, Japanese employees want more leisure after decades of being workaholics who accepted long working hours and short vacations. But many are groping to learn how to enjoy themselves and how not to feel guilty about it.

"We surely understand that leisure is doing what you like to do," says Akira Asano, publishing director at the National Recreation Association of Japan. "But there are many people who don't know what to do."

To help them, the government has made leisure an officially sanctioned pursuit. "In America, people know how to enjoy leisure," says Motoyuki Miyano, president of the government's Leisure Development Center. "But not in Japan."

Mr. Miyano's center, which is affiliated with the Ministry of International Trade and Industry, gives advice to companies, labor unions, and the government on how to improve and expand leisure. It conducts research on how to make the most of "soft time," and also publishes a magazine, Loisir (French for leisure), with articles on such topics as the joy of eating, hotels in Las Vegas, and riding the rails in Spain.

Two years ago, after many younger Japanese showed signs of putting leisure ahead of work, Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa declared that the government would aim to turn Japan into a "lifestyle superpower," creating the kind of good life that Japanese tourists have seen in the West.

That leisure was neglected for so long in postwar Japan may seem strange to the outside world. After all, Japan is known for such playful exports as Nintendo games, karaoke, and the Walkman.

But an official opinion poll in 1989 revealed that only 37 percent of Japanese were satisfied with their leisure compared to more than 80 percent of people surveyed in six other industrialized nations.

Only about 60 percent of Japanese workers take all their allotted vacation days, with many fearful of what might happen to their jobs while they are gone. As a result, workers in Japan spend 17 more days on the job each year than their US counterparts.

"Unfortunately, in Japan the concept of creative time for oneself usually means spending only a few minutes at leisure or else doing something that costs a fortune," says Satoko Arai, a Tokyo Bank employee. "We seem to have the idea that leisure is something given to us."

The biggest problem for leisure advocates is how to help the retired Japanese businessman. Dedicated so long to his company, he often becomes a "wet leaf" at home, as Japanese wives describe husbands hard to sweep out the door.

Japan's population is aging rapidly; by the year 2000, 17 percent of Japanese will be over 65, up from 12 percent today. By 2010, the figure will go above 20 percent. "At that time, leisure will have a great role in Japan," says Mr. Miyano.

But for now the government's major leisure-making efforts are focused on shortening working hours, reducing the number of Saturdays that children must go to school, and convincing Japanese to move to daylight-savings time.

An official goal to cut the yearly working hours to the lower Western level of 1,800 by 1995 still has a long way to go. Many companies resist reducing employee time. So far the number of hours has dropped from 2,200 a few years ago to 2,080 hours last year.

"If we have shorter working hours, we need something to do," Mr. Asano says.

Mr. Miyano says company attitudes are changing rapidly. "They have to compete for new workers by offering more leisure. Younger people are demanding it," he says.

FROM 1988 to 1991, the percent of Japanese who put leisure ahead of work grew from 29.9 percent to 33.1 percent, while those putting work ahead of leisure shrank to 35.9 percent from 41.5 percent. In just four years, from 1987 to 1991, the leisure industry has grown by 24 percent.

The government is coaxing companies to try new ideas to promote vacations. Mazda Motor Co., for example, has offered a $4,350 prize to any employee who came up with the best "dream vacation."

Last year's winner entered a race in Australia to see who could operate a vehicle the longest on the least fuel. Another winner used her vacation to create toys made of peanuts and shared them with elderly people.

Also last year, the Recreation Association started a training course for "leisure life advisers" and "leisure life promoters." The courses last from 6 months to a year, and so far 655 people have earned certificates. Many of them work in local governments or labor unions where leisure advice is often requested.

Mr. Asano estimates Japan needs 3,300 of his graduates to satisfy the potential demand for leisure guidance. The course, complete with eight textbooks, teaches students to, among other things, help those Japanese "who feel guilty at having leisure time."

For dealing with a new retiree, students are taught to ask 50 questions, such as whether the retiree gambles, plays mahjong, goes to pachinko (pinball) parlors, and this rather difficult question: "Do you understand the meaning of `Let's do something!'?"

One graduate, Miss Arai, says so far she has little chance as a bank employee to give leisure advice. (She herself runs in marathons and visits the United States on vacation). But she did convince a fellow employee, a 50-year-old man who rarely took time off, to go hang gliding with her.

"He enjoyed it very much," she said. "And now he takes a lot of vacation. It changed his life."

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