06/02/2015 2:57 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:24 AM IST

New Law Will Require Workaholic Japanese To Take Days Off

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TOKYO, JAPAN - JANUARY 28: Neon lighting offices in a building of the financial and business district of Marunouchi and Otemachi are seen in Tokyo downtown, Japan on January 28, 2015. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe want to revitalise the economy and plans to reform Japan's labor laws. (Photo by David Mareuil/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

College-educated and gainfully employed 36-year-old Eriko Sekiguchi should be a sought after friend or date, planning nights on the town and faraway resort vacations. But she works in Japan, a nation where workaholic habits die hard.

Often toiling 14 hours a day for a major trading company, including early morning meetings and after-hours "settai," or networking with clients, she used just eight of her 20 paid vacation days last year. Six of those days were for being sick.

"Nobody else uses their vacation days," said Sekiguchi, who was so busy her interview with The Associated Press had to be rescheduled several times before she could pop out of the office.

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.

Japan has been studying such legislation for years. There has been more impetus for change since 2012 as a consensus developed that the health, social and productivity costs of Japan's extreme work ethic were too high.

Part of the problem has been that many people fear resentment from co-workers if they take days off, a real concern in a conformist culture that values harmony. After all, in Japan, only wimps use up all their vacation days.

Most of the affected workers are "salarymen" or "OL" for office lady like Sekiguchi, so dedicated to their jobs they can't seem to go home. They are the stereotypes of, and the power behind, Japan Inc.

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.

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