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Sunday, March 21, 2010

WEEK 3

Moves afoot to make Japanese holidays a pleasure not a pain


Staff writer

It's a seasonal phenomenon in Japan: lines of cars 40-km long and more clogging expressways; super- jammed shinkansen terminals and airports; and hot-spring resorts besieged by visitors crammed cheek to cheek in the steaming baths, imo-arai-style (literally, "washing potatoes in a bucket").

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Holiday idyll: The popular vacation isle of Langkawi in Malaysia. TOMOKO OTAKE PHOTO

Consequently, for untold millions, so-called Golden Week — a period spanning late April to early May in which several national holidays fall — is not a glittering experience at all. Just as nightmarish for many vacationers in Japan are the Bon holidays in mid-August, and those at New Year's, when hordes of people hit the roads, rails and airports to visit families or jet away to tourist meccas, both domestic and overseas. And sure enough, the law of supply and demand being what it is, prices for accommodation and transportation also hit exhorbitant highs at these peak times. The net result is that many people return from their breaks exhausted, impoverished — and desperately in need of a holiday.

But all this could soon be a thing of the past. The new government that swept to power promising big changes last August is seriously considering ways to facilitate people traveling at more evenly spaced times throughout the year — saying that this alone would boost the travel and hospitality industries by ¥15 trillion and create 1.8 million new jobs.

But how?

A Japan Tourism Agency panel headed by Vice Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Minister Kiyomi Tsujimoto is currently discussing ways to divide the nation into five different zones whose Golden Week holidays would be staggered by zone. The panel is also calling for the creation of a five-day holiday in the autumn — a so-called Silver Week — that would again be staggered by region and spread over five different periods.

In one of the two proposals on the table, Golden Week and Silver Week would be spread over five weeks, instead of one week; while the other proposal would, more confusingly, see the five zonal Golden Week and Silver Week periods overlapping each other a little to occupy a total span of 2 1/2 weeks each.

However, the changes — which would require legal amendments to national holiday laws, but which could be introduced as early as 2012 — do not mean Japan's salaried workers will get more holidays. Instead, some of the existing national holidays would simply be moved to different dates, while keeping the original ones — such as Constitution Day on May 3, Green Day on May 4 and Children's Day on May 5 — as non-holiday "memorial days."

The agency's logic goes like this. If people travel at different times, the yawning gap in travel costs between the peak and off-peak seasons would become smaller, making tourism affordable for more people. Tourists would also likely enjoy their vacations more, as they would experience less frustrationg congestion, and so they would feel more inclined to travel more frequently and thus end up pumping more money into the tourism-related sectors of the economy. This would also help to stabilize the employment of people working in these sectors.

But would it really work?

The proposals are in part inspired by the staggering of school holidays in Europe, during which many parents also take a long vacation during their children's six-week summer breaks and head off en masse to their chosen idylls — mostly in the continent's sun-kissed south.

Jochen Legewie, a German native and president of Tokyo-based communications consultancy CNC Japan, says he finds Japan's ideas of moving national holidays around "creative" — and even "quite radical" from a European perspective.

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Jet lag: A normal Narita airport crush, seen after Golden Week in 2009. KYODO PHOTO

"The idea to move public holidays and create a new holiday behavior — this is absolutely innovative," he said. "From a German point of view, this is radical because in Germany and all the other European countries, most holidays are either Christian-related fixed dates or historical dates such as the German Unification Day. So it's unthinkable to move them."

But Legewie added that, given the change-averse nature of the Japanese public, it might take time for them to embrace a new holiday culture. In that respect he cited the case of "summer time" daylight-saving, whose introduction has long been debated here but never enforced, except on an experimental basis in Hokkaido and other regions.

"One argument I've heard (about introducing summer time in Japan) is that many salarymen don't want it to be introduced because they think it will mean they have to stay one hour longer at the office — because they will feel awkward leaving while it is still bright outside," he said.

Indeed, in Japanese society — where group harmony and selfless devotion to work have been embraced over individualism or work-life balance — the psychological pressure not to take time off from work, especially when everybody else is working, remains strong.

As a result, workers in Japan on average use only 8 1/2 days of their paid holidays — or 47.4 percent of their total average annual entitlement — according to the latest data from the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry. In another survey released last year by online travel site Expedia Japan, 39.5 percent of the 516 survey respondents cited "I'm too busy at work" as a reason for not using up their paid holidays. Perhaps more troubling is the fact that 23 percent cited the "atmosphere in the workplace" that kept them from taking holidays, while another 14.8 percent even said they did not want to take holidays because they were "worried their bosses and co-workers might not like it."

Because of such factors, Golden Week, the Bon season and New Year's are pretty much the only times many people in Japan feel no sense of guilt about being away from work with the intention of unwinding. That's a mentality it may take longer to sort out than a mere rescheduling of holiday times.

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Home run: Tokyo-bound traffic pictured at the end of Golden Week in 2009 in a typical expressway jam. KYODO PHOTO

"Japanese people feel more relaxed about taking time off from work if everyone is off," Masatoshi Abe, a journalist with Tokyo-based tourism trade publication Travel News, admitted. And while a few Japanese companies have a system of financially compensating employees for forgoing holidays, most do not. "Using up paid holidays would be ideal, but in reality, I think staggering holidays would be more practical," Abe said.

It's not certain at this point whether the tourism agency's push for holiday reform will really come through. While a 2009 opinion poll by the agency showed nearly half of the 4,123 people surveyed sided with the idea of staggering Golden Week, representatives of the business lobbies called by the agency's panel recently commented that large manufacturers with a nationwide supply chain might have trouble if factories in different regions are closed on different dates. Meanwhile, school principals have expressed concern that the reform "would lessen the significance of national holidays."

Still, Abe said that the tourism industry — especially businesses in central regions such as Shinshu (covering Nagano Prefecture and surrounding areas) — would benefit greatly from the proposed changes, as hotels and inns would be able to serve vacationers from both western and eastern Japan during their respective Golden Weeks.

In contrast, he explained that the so-called Happy Monday system introduced in 2001 — which has seen national holidays falling on Saturdays or Sundays moved to the following Monday as "quasi-national holidays" to create three-day holiday weekends — has not helped either holidaymakers or businesses. That's because it has only served to worsen congestion on those weekends, while giving people little incentive to travel on weekdays, he said.

"Staggering of holidays is worth a try," Abe said. "Unlike other public policies, changing holidays is not like building a new, fixed facility. We could find the right solution through trial and error."



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