I’m sure you’ve heard the old story: Americans don’t use their vacation days, and it hurts their health and their ability to be good workers. I’m sure there are plenty of problems with this story, but I’m here to tell you this: Use your goddamn vacation days.
I think this isn’t solely an “American” problem either. I don’t think I’ve seen a Japanese coworker take a vacation day yet, and I’ve been here for seventeen months. I’m sure it’s even more difficult for them, whatever problems not taking a vacation causes, because they also do a lot of overtime and are generally overworked. So much so that they invented a word in 1969 for “death from overwork.”
As an ALT in Japan, I am in no danger of being overworked. I’m typing this blog post at work right now, because I literally have nothing else to do. Mind you, I did do some work today: I wrote a sample diary entry about winter vacation, I made some copies, I corrected some papers, and I designed a worksheet for the students’ winter vacation diaries. But I have one class today, and not a lot to do. (Granted, it’s the first day of the new semester.)
Regardless of your workload, it’s just good to take your vacation days for mental health reasons. You need some downtime. You need some “you” time.
I wonder if this is a Western way of considering vacation days, because we sort of view work differently. In Japan, you start out as a student, going to school every day, all day (7 AM to 6 PM, on average), and then when you get a job, you work every day, all day (often 14 hour work days). So for Japanese people, it’s possible that work, like school, is your life.
But seeing as they have the word karoshi, I think that maybe needing to take vacations is a universal, culture-crossing thing.
In the United States, work is often viewed as work. Like, something we don’t really want to do. I think that’s a shame, because I think you should do what you love, but I realize that not everyone has that privilege. (My mom does. I’m pretty sure she thinks she has the best job in the world, but she also has a life outside of it. Still not sure if she ever uses vacation days, though.)
If we could find a balance between the way Japan thinks of work and the U.S. thinks of work, that would be ideal. According to all the articles I read, Europe seems to have it about right. Work shouldn’t be something you hate, and it shouldn’t take up your entire life either.
But no matter what you do, it should be something from which you take a break.
So that was a long, rambling way to get to my point: I took a vacation from Japan this winter, and it was the best idea I’ve ever had. (Okay, I tend toward hyperbole, but you get it.) On December 20th, I got on a plane back to California, where I got to see my friends and family, eat food that I’d missed terribly, and sleep for 12 hours a day (aww yiss) for two weeks.
Unfortunately, I had a sinus problem, so I couldn’t taste anything very well, and my appetite was nonexistent. Despite that, I managed to enjoy ALL THE FOOD. I can’t really complain that I didn’t get to do anything, though there were a few goals I failed to meet.
But what felt most important was the people, in spite of my claim “I’m only here for the food.” Living in Japan has been a lonely, lonely state, and being surrounded by people again was actually rather nice. I never felt like I needed to retreat to the back of the house to escape people. I guess I just really missed being around other… living things. (I don’t think I even have neighbors in Japan… My apartment building is a ghost town.)
And seeing my friends… I can’t describe how awesome that was. It was just awesome. Before I left the U.S. for Japan back in 2012, I was really afraid that I was going to lose all my friends, or that when I finally did come back, things would be so different that we couldn’t even be friends the same way anymore. But it wasn’t like that at all. Everyone I saw this December were people who bothered to keep in touch with me, and it never felt like I couldn’t reach them anymore. We were able to just jump back into things. It was such a relief.
How I Feel Now
I was sad to leave the U.S. again, but I also felt ready. Two weeks was the perfect amount of time. I didn’t get sick of being at home, and I didn’t feel like I wasn’t ready to go back to Japan.
JETs have to decide in February whether they will recontract for another year or not. And in the fall, I really wasn’t sure. I felt so messed up—lonely and frustrated with my job and hella depressed (probably still something I should work on). I didn’t know if I could do a third year of this, even though that was my original plan. The week before I left for the U.S., I made a list of pros and cons for staying in Japan. It wasn’t a reassuring list.
I was really afraid that this vacation would ruin everything. That it would make me want to leave Japan right away, which was scary, because I don’t have any solid plans for after Japan yet. I’m not ready to leave, but I wanted to. I really wanted to.
This vacation had just the opposite effect: I feel ready to tackle another year in Japan. I think I can do it. There are still cons for staying, but they don’t feel as big and overwhelming as they did in the fall.
I think all I needed was a mental break from living and working in Japan. I needed to not be there. I needed a break from my life as it had become.
This vacation made me appreciate a lot of things about California, but also a lot of things about Japan. I had the usual reverse-culture shocks (service is terrible outside of Japan, I can walk into a store and speak English?!, etc.), and I’m sure it will never stop.
I think I now understand the importance of vacations. A vacation from your normal routine, from where you live, from your job—that’s important. It’s good for you. You’ll feel better.
I know I do.
On Americans not taking vacation days:
On overwork in Japan:
karoshi (過労死) n. literally “death from overwork.”