Tokyo train station

You can Mourn your Unused Paid Holidays in Japan


There are a lot of public holidays in Japan with June the only month that doesn’t boost a public holiday. This isn’t because the Japanese like holidays – in fact the opposite is true – the high number of holidays is to try and encourage workers to take some time off.

The country is known for its culture of overworking. Within Japan, the culture is considered an epidemic, so much so that there’s a word for death from overworking – “karoshi”. There is even a karoshi hotline which a worried wife can call if she thinks her husband is working too hard. The hotline gets about 400 calls a year. Government statistics show that over 150 people reportedly die each year from overworking, including suicide caused by work pressure.

The overworking culture means that employees only take just over 50% of their paid holidays, according to the country’s Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare.

Overworking has become a social norm and adding more and more public holidays doesn’t seem to be convincing Japanese workers to take time off. This year a different, more spiritual, approach is being taken.

On November 23rd, Japan will observe Labour Thanksgiving Day. (Ironically this holidays falls on a Saturday in 2019 and won’t be a paid holiday.) Over that weekend, a ceremony to mourn the unused paid holidays will be held. The ceremony called “Yukyu Joka”, which literally means “paid holiday purification”, will be held in Tokyo.

Promotional poster for the Yukyu Joka.

Ningen Co Ltd is organizing the ceremony and have invited Jōdo sect Buddhist Priest Takuro Sayama to lead the ceremony.

At the ceremony, the priest will be surrounded by 300 lanterns. The lanterns will be covered with messages about the regrets that come from not taking days off. The public are invited to submit their stories about missed holidays and these will be projected onto a giant lantern on the centre stage. The “spirit” of the unused paid holidays will then be mourned and “purified” through the priest’s prayers.

No doubt the publicity about the ceremony will highlight the problem, though the Japanese government isn’t relying on just ‘thoughts and prayers’ to address the problem.

In 2018, it passed the “Work Style Reform Legislation” which made important amendments to existing labor laws aimed at reforming work habits and reducing working hours. Among the changes implemented in April 2019, employees must now take at least five days of paid holiday if more than 10 days of their annual paid holidays are unused.

Of course another approach is reminding people that it’s not always about working harder, but working smarter. In August 2019, Microsoft Japan introduced a four-day workweek trial and reported that productivity had been boosted by nearly 40% during the experiment.