Japanese, Determined to Relax, Fix on Fun With Usual Resolve
But guilt still shadows many who take time off to take it easy
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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."