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Yoshimasa Higashihara, an assistant manager with Japan Airlines, enjoys a ‘workation’ in Osaka. Photo: Handout

Coronavirus: work obsessed Japanese learn to take things easy, with a ‘workation’

  • Tokyo hopes by encouraging people to take working vacations it can help the domestic travel industry and the wider economy recover from Covid-19
  • The idea is also helping the country’s notoriously hard workers to overcome feelings of guilt about taking time off

When the Japanese government said it was throwing its weight behind the concept of “workations”, Yoshimasa Higashihara did not have to be asked twice.

An assistant manager with Japan Airlines, 37-year-old Higashihara has already had one “workation” this summer, catching up with a friend in Osaka for a few days, and is planning another trip in the coming weeks.

“I really want to visit the Blue Pond in Hokkaido because I’ve seen pictures but never been able to get there myself,” he said.

The Blue Pond in Hokkaido. Photo: Rhea Mogul
A veteran of seven domestic “workation” trips and, before the coronavirus pandemic wrought havoc in the international travel sector, three overseas – to New York, Hawaii and Singapore – Higashihara says being able to balance work with a vacation gives him the best of both worlds.

“I tend to travel alone and meet up with friends to see new places,” he said. “When I travel, I like to stay for a full week, but it’s difficult to take that much time off because of my work, so I use workation days to let me stay for that long.”

For Asia’s emerging economies, working from home is still a work in progress

Typically, Higashihara says he will work for between two and four hours each day and then take the rest of the time off, saying that it enables him to learn new cultures and meet interesting people.

The Japanese government has been encouraged by the public’s take-up of the domestic “Go To Travel” programme over the summer and is to further encourage companies to permit their staff to take “workations” to help the travel industry and keep the economy ticking over.

One target of the scheme is onsen resorts – which are often very traditional and slow to adopt new technologies – with the government announcing financial support for hotels in onsen towns to install high-speed Wi-fi connections. The idea is for companies to essentially adopt towns and to use them as satellite offices throughout the year.

An onsen in Nagayu, Japan. File photo

The government announced that 4.2 million people had taken advantage of “Go To” discounts on train journeys and domestic flights, hotel stays, entrance to attractions and meals at restaurants in the three weeks to August 20, traditionally the peak of the nation’s summer vacation season.

A key element of the scheme has been remote “teleworking” with an employee going on holiday but still devoting a couple of hours a day to company business. And while the concept has been around in Japan for a couple of years, the government is keen to build on the idea.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga hosted a meeting of government officials in the tourism sector in August, saying that assistance would be extended to more hotels to enable them to accommodate “teleworkers”.

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Corporations that have not yet instituted their own schemes have been in contact with some of Japan’s largest travel firms to create projects for their staff, with JTB Corp setting up a dedicated new division in late July.

“We have set up a human resources solutions service department that works with companies to create workation plans for their employees, primarily in resort hotels around the country,” said Kaori Mori, a spokeswoman for the domestic travel giant.

“Okinawa is proving popular, but there are possibilities in hotels across the country,” she said, “And that includes some places that are not typically regarded as holiday destinations, such as Wakayama and Kagawa prefectures.”

A beach in Okinawa, Japan. File photo

Companies are drawing up programmes that add a few days onto a weekend getaway, giving staff five or even six days off, but with the work component included.

JTB has also teamed up with NEC Corporation, launching a system on August 31 that permits teleworkers to reserve an empty hotel room and to use it as a remote office. Thirty hotels in and around Tokyo are taking part in the initial phase, but it is being expanded to Osaka and Nagoya in the early part of next year and nationwide by March 2022.

NEC has created the application that lets workers and employers search for and then reserve hotel rooms, with JTB approaching the project from the hotels’ perspective, encouraging operators to consider teleworkers as a new source of revenue at a time when the leisure market is struggling.

“The idea of teleworking has attracted a lot of attention, but it is a little early to say how widespread this will become in Japan,” Mori added. “I think it is going to take time to change the way that companies and staff think. It may be popular with employees, but firms will need to change their internal regulations, which might be hard for some. More traditional firms are ruled by the time clock, so this is something of a revolution for them.”

Death of the office? In Asia, the workplace is just adapting to Covid-19

A more uniquely Japanese issue that “workations” may help to overcome is the chronic failure of Japanese employees to take the full amount of annual holidays to which they are entitled.

A report by travel company Expedia determined that the average Japanese employee takes just 50 per cent of their annual leave. That was the lowest figure among the 30 countries taking part in the survey, with workers in both Hong Kong and Germany taking 100 per cent of their annual holidays, followed by Britons at 96 per cent and Singaporeans at 93 per cent.

Sixty per cent of Japanese employees said they “felt guilty” about taking their holiday allowance, with 20 per cent saying they constantly check work emails when they are meant to be putting their feet up. In comparison, 31 per cent of Hongkongers said they felt guilty about taking a break, with the figure falling to just 19 per cent among Italians.

Many Japanese say they are uncomfortable taking time off because it means that other members of staff have to do their tasks and they worry they may appear disloyal to the company.