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Finding Life Outside the Office

Japanese employees are being encouraged to take more days off. The move comes as managers and the government attempt to raise productivity amid tougher global competition and a shrinking labor pool.

On one recent work day, people were handing out fliers at a train station in Chichibu, near Tokyo, encouraging people to take their paid holidays. It's part of a joint effort by the central and local governments to urge commuters to take time off during a local festival.

The Chichibu Night Festival dates back more than four centuries. It attracts more than 200,000 visitors a year. When the event falls on weekdays, local schools are closed so students can take part.

Authorities thought it would be a good idea to give workers the same opportunity. They're trying to get employers to cooperate.

If workers are offered the chance to participate in the local festival, they might become less resistant to taking breaks at other times.

"This could be a good start," says Hideki Naritomi, who is with the JMA Research Institute. "The schools are shut, so people would have a chance to spend time with their families."

Some companies have devised unique ways to encourage employees to use their vacation time. A Tokyo consulting firm called Tsunagu Solutions solicited ideas from its staff.

The options now include a half-day visit to a hair salon, to indulge in a little pampering. A "love holiday" allows workers to celebrate birthdays or other significant events with partners or family. The company also gives them about $80.

"Workers often find it difficult to take days off without a particular reason," says Aya Suzuki, who works for the firm. "But these special holidays have a clear purpose, so people are more inclined to use their vacation time."

Employees have to tell coworkers about their plans and make sure someone fills in for them when they're gone.

Tamami Fukumoto recently took a half-day off to visit a museum. One of her colleagues agreed to cover for her.

Fukumoto's colleague will have a heavier workload for one afternoon. But she knew her extra effort would be rewarded.

"It'll be easier to take a day off when it's my turn," she says. "I don't consider this a burden."

Fukumoto went to an exhibition of French Impressionist paintings. She says she'd really been looking forward to it.

"I made plans well in advance, even to take a half day off," Fukumoto says. "I feel refreshed, and happy I got to do this."

The people behind this initiative hope workers will become accustomed to enjoying more leisure time. Getting them to that point will require the efforts of officials in both the public and private sectors.

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