Saturday, May 3, 2014

Taking Vacation While Employed by a Japanese Company

Bloomberg recently published an article entitled "Japanese Men Bringing Up Babies Aim to Send Wives to Work" that touches on the difficulties of taking leave from a Japanese company (parental or otherwise). Here are a few key points from the article:
  • Just 47% of Japanese employees take an annual paid vacation.
  • Japanese employees, asked why they don't take vacation days they're entitled to, cited embarrassment "because others don't take them".
  • An evaluation system weighted toward seniority and time spent in the office rather than productivity and merit discourages leave.

From Niall Murtagh's Blue-Eyed Salaryman
(his account of working as a permanent employee at Mitsubishi)

Before I started my twelve month secondment with a Japanese company, I asked for and received my managers' written agreement that I would be able to take vacation on certain dates to attend an important family event in the US. It seemed important to make sure we were all on the same page regarding my vacation plans because (i) the vacation would take place just before Golden Week, a string of national holidays, and (ii) the vacation would use nearly all of the 10 vacation days I would be allotted for the year. In reliance on this agreement, I stayed in Japan by myself during the year-end holidays. This included working on Christmas Day, a day that I much prefer to spend with my family.

A couple months before the planned vacation, I touched base with my managers about completing the formal vacation approval process so I could purchase international airfare. For six weeks, while the price of airfare steadily increased, my managers and I engaged in a confusing (to me) exchange regarding my pre-approved vacation. They asking me to shorten my vacation. When I asked why--assuming there must be a big deal coming in--they were unwilling to provide an explanation. I pointed out that the company manual for contract employees clearly stated that vacation requests could only be denied if the vacation would disrupt a project and all of my projects were scheduled to end prior to my planned vacation. Ultimately, they asked me to tell them my plans for each day of the vacation so they could evaluate whether my plans were "important" enough to justify the use of vacation days. (I've since been told that it is illegal, under Japanese labor law, for managers to ask employees questions regarding what the employee plans to do with their vacation time.)

To make a long story short, my request was denied and my vacation was shortened, so much so that I only spent three days in the US. While I'm grateful that I still made it to the wedding, this was not an adequate amount of time to catch up on doctors' appointments, visit with my family (and my dogs), or--dare I hope--recharge my batteries.

As any big law M&A associate knows, vacations have to be cancelled when the deal is on. I get that and I can live with it. In this case, however, there was virtually no work to do. When I returned from my vacation, I was caught up on email and requested work product just 20 minutes into my work day. I asked my managers for work, but they had nothing for me to do that day or for many days thereafter. (For the rest of the week I had requested off, I was given a cumulative two hours of substantive work to do.)

My managers never explained why my request was denied other than to say it gave the appearance of being away from the office for too long. Ironically (and perhaps tellingly), my team leader left for vacation the day before I did and has yet to return two and a half weeks later.

Despite my team leader's long absence, it appears that it's generally difficult to use your vacation days while employed by a Japanese company. I notice that other employees in my division use just one day at a time--usually with no notice after calling in "sick". From a western point of view, I cannot for the life of me see why the company prefers unexpected absences to planned vacations, which are presumably less disruptive to the work of the company. Also, if you are going to rely on foreign, often unaccompanied, secondees, how can you not see the tremendous value in allowing them one home leave per year to visit their families back home?

I look forward to using a big chunk of my nearly two months of accrued vacation time between the end of the secondment and my return to the firm.

Views are my own.