Japan Is Considering Making Vacation Mandatory. The U.S. Should, Too

TOKYO, JAPAN - JANUARY 30: A woman walks through the park of the Meiji Jingu shrine covered with snow in Tokyo, Japan on Janu
TOKYO, JAPAN - JANUARY 30: A woman walks through the park of the Meiji Jingu shrine covered with snow in Tokyo, Japan on January 30, 2015. While rail traffic is disrupted, some Japanese take the opportunity to go for a walk in the park or visit temples covered with snow, and for some people taking pictures in front of the Imperial Palace to shoot the first snowfall of the year in the capital. (Photo by David Mareuil/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Japan wants to cut off its workaholics, and America could learn a thing or two from the proposal.

A measure slated to come before Japan’s parliament sometime in the next four months will require workers to use at least five of their 10 guaranteed paid vacation days per year. The United States, where many employees leave vacation days unused or don't have any at all, might do well to craft a similar model for its workers, even if Americans' reasons for ignoring paid time off are quite different from those of Japanese wage earners.

Overworking is a chronic problem in Japan. In the 1990s, the term for sudden death caused by exhaustion and overwork became a household name: karoshi.

Group identity is deeply ingrained in many facets of the ethnically homogenous country's culture, and Japanese workers are afraid of letting their colleagues down by voluntarily taking time off, says Paul Jaffe, a former longtime resident of Japan and consultant at Japanese Intercultural Consulting.

“People tend to not want to put burdens on other people and not push their own benefit ahead of others,” Jaffe told The Huffington Post. “It’s very common for people to have vacation days they don’t take.”

To convince workers to spend time away from the office, the Japanese government has created more national holidays in recent years. If the whole team is encouraged to take the day off, the thinking goes, then individuals will. But public holidays do not guarantee paid time off, so they may act as more of a nudge than a push. Now, the government hopes mandatory time off will help foster a culture in which workers prioritize their free time and expect colleagues to do so, too.

Many workers in the United States also leave unused vacation days on the table. About 40 percent of Americans didn’t plan to take all of their time off last year, according to a survey from the U.S. Travel Association and GfK, a market research firm. More than 20 percent of workers said the main reason was fear that their absence would prove them to be replaceable.

A survey released last month found almost 42 percent of Americans didn’t take a single vacation day in 2014. This Google Consumer Surveys report, published for travel website Skift, also found that women tended to use fewer vacation days than men, and that employees in younger age ranges were going light on vacation days.

A federal policy for mandatory time off, similar to what is being proposed in Japan, might allay the fears of workers spooked about losing their jobs for spending time away from the office. It would be a big step, though. As it stands, the U.S. is the only advanced economy that doesn’t require companies to offer paid leave.

japan vacation
This 2007 chart, showing how the U.S. doesn't require vacation days, really highlights "American exceptionalism" at its worst.

Still, Americans are less likely than Japanese workers to spend countless hours in the office.

“I’ve heard Japanese executives here [in the U.S.] ask questions like, ‘Why do Americans go home so early?’” Jaffe recalled. “They haven’t grasped fully the situation here, the family situation, the sociological situation where people have kids and they have to go pick them up from school.”

For now, it's unclear whether Japan's mandatory vacation measure will pass.

The core of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's platform has been economic reform measures -- dubbed "Abenomics" -- meant to jumpstart Japan's anemic economy. Mandatory paid leave could be part of that: Workers forced to spend time out of the office may spend more money shopping, stimulating commerce throughout the country.

Motoatsu Sakurai, president of the nonprofit Japan Society and a former Japanese ambassador to the U.S., likens this proposed social engineering to some affirmative action policies in the States. He said that setting quotas for the number of racial minorities and women admitted to colleges or hired at companies makes institutions see, and ultimately depend on, the benefits of diversity.

“It helps eliminate these kinds of extreme cases of social issues,” Sakurai told HuffPost. “For Japan, when people get used to it, nobody will want to have less holidays.”