Asking for Leave
Just as with pay raises, the topic of asking for leave in Japan can be a thorny one, if you don't follow the unwritten rules. But before advising you on how to ask for the unusual, let's take a look at just which leave is specifically allowed.
As I have written previously, there are 3 levels of contract when you go to work for a company in Japan: the general labor law which protects every worker in the nation, the individual company's regulations and rules, and your specific contract. The labor law says that you may work 40 hours a week (46 hours for small companies with less than 10 employees), and take all remaining days (usually the weekends), public holidays, PLUS 10 days leave a year.
There are currently 15 public holidays a year in Japan, a pretty good number compared to other industrialized nations. Golden Week is a good example of these at work - where there is a string of four of them. Employers with a special need, such as a company emergency or providing a service traditionally consumed over the holidays may legally require employees to work on such days - providing they give you at least 4 days off a month. Of course, most Japanese employees either comply with such requests or leave for another job.
Your 10 days annual leave is available as soon as you have been working in a company for 6 months, so long as your attendance record is better than 80%. I've always thought it strange that this leave isn't pro-rated, just incase the employee doesn't complete their full year, but there it is. Most Japanese don't use this leave until they've been with the company for a year, and even then, tend to use only part of it for holidays, keeping the rest for sick days, etc. There is no concept of "sick leave" in Japan. Some foreign firms provide it, but it's not part of the system.
In addition to the 10 days, the law allows for an extra day of leave for each year worked at the company after the initial six months. You keep adding the extra days until you hit 20 days, after which there are no further increases. If you don't take this leave, and as people get older, many rise to positions of responsibility and don't take it, then you can save it up - providing it doesn't cause the company undue hardship when you do finally decide to take it.
The labor law also defines specific types of special leave, such as for childbirth, marriages, and deaths in the family. These vary from 1 to 3 or more days, depending on the closeness of the person near you that was affected - and of course how generous the company is. Every company is supposed to have work rules posted in a public place, for you to peruse. These give the specific conditions, within the labor law, covering among other things your annual leave, leave under special circumstances, and other benefits and rights negotiated by the employees with the company management.
Ok, so how to ask for leave? Firstly, if the dates being contemplated coincide with the company's own holiday schedule, such as Obon in autumn when many companies close down for a week, then you shouldn't have any problem. Simply check in with your supervisor and make sure that you get any required paperwork filled out. Likewise if you have a personal requirement covered in the work rules - just let your boss know about it. Most likely either he/she or the company will even make a small financial contribution to congratulate or commiserate.
Unfortunately for Japanese companies, foreigners often ask for the 10 days personal leave during times convenient to the individual and not the company - such as Christmas or early summer. For small companies in particular, this may mean the expense of finding a substitute worker, or not being able to function properly during your absence. The commonsense thing here is to make sure that you've got everything covered while you're gone - prove to the boss that you've trained your co-workers well enough to handle the basics. Furthermore, try to break up your breaks into shorter periods: most companies can handle an absence of a week or so, but a month definitely makes things harder.
I have a friend who asked her employer, a large Japanese semi-governmental institution, for time off to take her kids back home for a month for the holidays. They let her do it the first time, but thereafter politely told her to restrict her time off to no more than a week to 10 days, or her contract would not be renewed. Of course, it's not that easy for an organization to just fire someone, but why create the conflict, when a little bit of forethought could make everything so much easier?
Terrie Lloyd is the founder of DaiJob, Inc. He also writes a weekly newsletter for entrepreneurs and business people about business and political opportunities in Japan. You can find the newsletter at www.terrie.com. For further contact with Terrie, email him at email@example.com.