It may surprise you, but one of the trickiest words to translate from Japanese into English is isogashii. Every dictionary will tell you that its closest equivalent is “busy,” and you’d be hard pressed to find a native Japanese speaker who disagreed with this.
Denotative definitions can, however, be deceptive. We all know that it is culture, not dictionaries, that gives words their meaning. Hence “isogashii” can mean a lot more than merely “being busy,” as the work culture in Japan makes that seemingly straightforward word far more tricky to pin down.
Consider an everyday occurrence: Two male Japanese friends run into each other on the street.
“Oh, hello,” says Mr. A. “How are you?”
“Hi,” says Mr. B. “Well, I’m managing. I’ve been working on a job for weeks, morning to night.”
“Aa, oisogashii desu ne.”
A literal — and incorrect — translation of this final exchange in Japanese would be:
“Oh, you’re so busy.”
It’s hard to read the actual situation from this translation. In fact, Mr. A is complimenting Mr. B on how much work he is doing, on how productive he is; and Mr. B is displaying modesty, showing that he is not bragging about how much he is getting done.
A more correct translation would therefore be:
“Oh, you’re really doing so much.”
“I wish it were true.”
Japan may be one of the few countries where calling someone “busy” is a compliment. This indicates something rather special about the culture of work in this country. In some countries of the West there was once a thing called the “Protestant work ethic,” according to which people applied themselves to their tasks with great seriousness because they believed their attitude toward and accomplishment in work affected no less than their salvation. This faith-based Calvinist idea is largely a thing of the past.
For the Japanese, though, their very identity as individuals depended, and to a large extent still depends, on their relation to work. However mundane, however tedious, every task is to be treated with the greatest attention to detail and with fiendishly diligent care. To be less than 100 percent committed is a sign of unconscionable slackness — and giving your all is more important than how much you actually get done.
This is the key to understanding the ubiquitousness of the verb ganbaru (to keep grinding away; to never slack off) in its many forms. It was with this Japanese work ethnic in mind that I examined the results of the annual Expedia Report on vacation-taking conducted by Harris Interactive of New York.
The results of the survey conducted in May — whose theme was “Are you vacation deprived?” — were published last month and, yes indeed, Japan came out on top of the heap for both the least number of days of paid vacation available to working people and the least number they actually took.
First, the figures.
Japanese workers had 16.6 days of vacation available to them; they actually took 9.3. In comparison, out of 37.7 days available, the French took 34.4 — which justifies the Japanese in taking one of their words for holidays, bakansu, from the French vacances. The Spanish were not far behind with 31.9 and 28.6 days respectively; while the British took 25.5 of their 27.9-day allotment. The Americans, in contrast, were right up (or down) there near the Japanese in taking only 14 of the 16.9 days available to them.
Is the Protestant work ethic alive and well in the United States, or are Americans just afraid of losing their jobs? Whatever the answer to that one, though, the more interesting part of the survey’s results came in the answers to questions about motivation and preference.
When asked about the present situation regarding paid vacations, 21.5 percent of Japanese workers said they were dissatisfied with the number of days given and the number they were able to take, while 13.6 percent said they felt they had taken enough but would like more available.
Meanwhile, 36.6 percent reported being satisfied with the total number but not with the amount they could actually take, and 21.7 percent declared they were satisfied all round.
In other words, well over half of the Japanese workers surveyed were not satisfied with the number of days of vacation they could take. But if those days were available to them, why didn’t they just pack up the family car or whatever and head out of town? What was stopping them?
The answer to this is at the crux of the Japanese work ethic: They were stopping themselves. There’s no boss so implacable as the one you’ve got in your own head.
So, who do these workers blame for their being vacation deprived?
Nearly half, or 44.8 percent, cited the amount of work they are given and the need to finish it during vacation time. Another 39.7 percent said they wanted to save up holiday time in case they needed to access it for possible sick leave or emergencies, even though they would normally be awarded time off anyhow in such cases. In addition, however, 27.6 percent said that taking a vacation caused meiwaku (inconvenience) to their bosses and coworkers, and 23.9 percent agreed with the statement that “Because bosses and coworkers don’t take vacations, it makes it harder for me to.”
It’s obvious from these results that the social pressure of being in the office or workplace — not only of doing the work but being seen doing it — is weighing heavily on the Japanese working person’s conscience. After all, the social contract of this country holds that “you will do whatever everyone else does; you will not cause inconvenience to others for your own benefit.”
Well, it’s not exactly written down like that — but it doesn’t have to be. With a work ethic like theirs, who needs to take a vacation? The words of the old song, “Poison Ivy,” apply here to paid vacations in Japan: “You can look, but you’d better not touch.”
A majority of Japanese workers would take longer holidays if their bosses encouraged them to, so perhaps any emerging new culture of rest and revival must come from the top down.
Certainly, leisure industries of all sorts are encouraging Japanese people to chill out by availing themselves of a variety of activities, but demand in travel and leisure is slack. The Expedia Report showed that a full 53.9 percent of Japanese workers would like to use extra vacation time, if they had it, on “domestic travel for more than a day.” More than a day? How about more than a week or a month? No way. Who would be watching the shop?
In the very old days, most Japanese people lived and worked on farms. They had only two holidays: New Year’s and Obon, the Buddhist All Souls’ Day in the summer. Their work was hard, but it formed the core of their existence, both physical and spiritual.
Japanese workers today may not be as essentially bound to work as their ancestors, but they do generally find a joy in diligence and commitment that keeps them from taking the holidays they deserve. For sure it’s good to be isogashii, but longer holidays and the productive use of free time would stimulate domestic demand and actually increase productivity. Consequently, the vicious cycle of deflation could be broken and the entire economy would benefit if the workers of this country would stand up, stretch, and say, “Give me a break!”