Time Off vs. Off Time
Japanese do not understand the concept of paid vacation. Sorry to say it, but there it is. I have struggled with and complained about our different cultural perceptions of the matter for years, but the frustration I had been feeling finally became crystal clear to me in late June after spending two lessons of a business English class on the matter. I came to understand that for Japanese there is no difference between paid vacation from a job, paid sick leave, or just plain (unpaid) time off. In the business lessons, we were studying from a textbook and reading/listening to characters describe their jobs. In English, the job descriptions included an accounting the job’s days of (paid) vacation time and allowable (paid) sick leave - the more the merrier in the characters’ opinions.
I asked my student how many (paid) holidays his job allows him, and how many (if any) paid days of sickness leave. He did not quite understand - as I expected - and framed his answer by describing how many “days off” he has per year. (I was surprised by the number - it was something like thirty paid “days off” per year.)
But the trick here is that a “day off” makes no distinction between a paid holiday (which I consider to be almost an inalienable human right) and a day of unavoidable (and therefore unpunished) sickness. The fact is that Japanese have only about five-to-ten days of paid holiday, all of which they are expected to take in the summer. This is why the summer travel season in this country is always so congested (and expensive). Everybody who travels, travels at exactly the same time - by social design more than by choice. Japanese are under a lot of social pressure from an early age to think of time spent together, doing things as a group, is good and pleasant. I feel the opposite, that time spent with other people is poorly spent time and that time alone is the preferable.
If an employee misses work during the year because of illness, those missed days are subtracted from the allowable total of “days off.” So it is conceivable that if a worker has a lot of illness, or family trouble that keeps him/her from work, then they end up not only with no vacation at all - summer or otherwise - but are actually in debt to their companies and in threat of dismissal.
This is the case with my wife. She has an allotted number of paid “days off.” But if the children are ill then it is she who takes care of them, stays home and takes them to the doctor, etc. To make a vacation trip to Canada as a family requires about two weeks to do it comfortably. But two weeks is considered a “long” summer holiday (in a world where the international standard is more like five weeks). The last time she requested two weeks leave, she was told by her boss that she had already used up so much “time off” that if she took two weeks she would be fired. So much for family trips to Canada. The last time my wife made the trip was in 2001. My position was that days missed because of the children’s illnesses - time off - was unpaidtime off, not some kind of alternate use of vacation time, which is a human right. But that is not the perspective taken in Japan. I think people here are still treated as fodder for the economic machinery, living with less dignity and fewer of the internationally recognized “inalienable” rights that are due a human being in the rest of the world.
But I could be wrong.
Close to the end of the second lesson on this subject my business student had a revelation and asked me with wonder in his voice,
“Is vacation time separate from sick time?”
I was happy because I thought a cross-cultural point of understanding had been reached. successfully