On the train to and from work, sitting down, standing up, at work, at school… in public places, people in Japan (including politicians) are nodding off whenever they can. It’s part of the scenery day and night in Tokyo, a “city that never sleeps”. At least, not for a full eight hours. Naps don’t count!
The Japanese word for nap (inemuri) comes from the combination of two words, iru (basically, being in a place or being present) and nemuri (sleep), and is often translated as “sleeping while present”. Of course, there are other words for nap such as utatane and hirune, with slightly different connotations, but inemuri seems to imply that you are sitting up, on the job, present and accounted for, but just happen to have passed out from sheer exhaustion.
Image by Samantha Marx
The Japanese propensity for napping anywhere has been noted with some surprise by other nationalities, judging by the Wikipedia entries for inemuri in English, German, Polish, Russian and Greek. Well-accustomed to getting some shuteye when the opportunity presents itself, some Japanese encounter difficulties when travelling overseas. One blogger commented that she tried it on a tram in Geneva, lulled by the seductive vibrations, but was stared at and warned to look after her belongings.
This could be why you can close your eyes and let yourself drift off in a Japanese train—the chances are good that when you awake, your wallet, cell phone and all items of clothing will still be there.
This national habit has been the subject of discussion in China, including a thread on the vulnerability of Japanese people sleeping on the subway. Some netizens asserted that it was the fast-paced lifestyle and the way workers gave their all that was the cause. Others doubted whether people were really that tired, or questioned the value of such a lifestyle. A few compared the subway systems of the two countries, and noted that the Japanese subway may offer a less crowded and more peaceful space to catch some Z’s. Less crowded? I find that hard to swallow. Less elbows, maybe.
▼ Awww, young sleep
Image by Chris Gladis
Inemuri starts at a young age. In a study carried out by the Japan Youth Research Institute, the percentage of Japan’s high school students who nap during class is 45%, higher than the U.S., China, and South Korea. Is this a product of a notoriously rigorous school system, or an accepted cultural norm?
According to Brigitte Steger’s research on the subject, in a Japanese company only those high up or low down can engage in the practice, leaving middle managers out in the cold and not allowed to nap (as cited by this BBC article on inemuri)—which Japanese writer oneDog describes as an amusing misconception. I also have some anecdata—I’ve seen middle managers sleeping like snoring, farting babies in the office and on trains (if babies stayed mostly upright to sleep). But maybe these “middle” managers believed their jobs were either more or less important on the food chain to allow for naps?
The Japanese work ethic is legendary. Are employees caught napping because they’re cutting into their essential hours of rest thanks to over-the-top workplace demands? As one common theory goes, since the essence of gainful employment in Japan is simply being seated at your desk in the office before and after your boss leaves (rather than being productive), it doesn’t matter whether you’re sleeping or awake.
▼ Man and laptop sleep together
Image by Guido van Nispen
As an additional bonus, the act of napping could avoid many an awkward situation as the napper is “unable” to see or hear—which may be faked at will. Fake sleeping is known in Japan as “raccoon dog sleep” (tanuki neiri), a similar expression to “playing possum” in English. It’s said that the firing of a hunter’s gun may cause raccoon dogs to faint and fall out of the trees. Then when the hunter incautiously approaches, the animal suddenly leaps to its feet with rage in classic horror movie style, and makes its escape.
▼This tanuki may swoon in terror if he feels threatened. I swoon, looking into those raccoon eyes…
Image by rumpleteaser
After I began work at a Japanese company, what with the long hours, the high stress and the pressure to be like everyone else, I soon found myself embracing the habit of inemuri. Especially on trains, my eyes would start to close and I’d find myself drooling on a stranger’s shoulder without the slightest remorse. I mean, everyone was doing it. Why swim against the tide? Whereas if I found myself in say, New York or London, I wouldn’t want to drop my guard even for a moment. I’d have my eyes extra wide open for the first sign of trouble and I’d be clutching my purse in a death grip.
I can only wish inemuri was more culturally acceptable and safe in my own country. Yawn… I better hit the futon.