Workaholic habits die hard in Japan—one 36-year-old who often works 14 hours a day took just eight of her 20 paid vacation days last year, six of them because she was sick—and she says, "Nobody else uses their vacation days." But the government wants to change all that. Legislation that will be submitted during the parliamentary session that began Jan. 26 aims to ensure workers get the rest they need. In a break with past practice, it will become the legal responsibility of employers to ensure workers take their holidays. The workaholic lifestyle and related reluctance of couples to raise children have long been blamed as a factor behind the nose-diving birth rate that's undermining the world's third-biggest economy.
And working literally to death is a tragedy so common that a term has been coined for it: "karoshi." The government estimates there are 200 karoshi deaths a year from causes such as heart attacks or cerebral hemorrhaging after working long hours. It's aware of many cases of mental depression and suicides from overwork not counted as karoshi. About 22% of Japanese work more than 49 hours a week, compared with 16% of Americans and 11% of the French and Germans. Barely half the vacation days allotted to Japanese workers are ever taken, an average of nine days per individual a year. Experts say the law is a start, while acknowledging the roots of the dilemma lie deep. (Read more Japan stories.)