“Inemuri,” the Japanese Art of Taking Power Naps at Work, on the Subway, and Other Public Places

If you’ve vis­it­ed any big city in Japan, you’ve no doubt seen a fair few com­muters sleep­ing on the sub­way. The more time you spend there, the more places in which you’ll see nor­mal, every­day-look­ing folks fast asleep: parks, cof­fee shops, book­stores, even the work­place dur­ing office hours. Peo­ple in Korea, where I live, have also been known to fall asleep in places not nor­mal­ly asso­ci­at­ed with sleep­ing, but the Japan­ese take it to such a lev­el that they’ve actu­al­ly got a word for it: inemuri (居眠り, a mash-up of the verb for being present and the one for sleep­ing.

“I first encoun­tered these intrigu­ing atti­tudes to sleep dur­ing my first stay in Japan in the late 1980s,” writes Uni­ver­si­ty of Cam­bridge lec­tur­er Brigitte Ste­ger. “At that time Japan was at the peak of what became known as the Bub­ble Econ­o­my, a phase of extra­or­di­nary spec­u­la­tive boom. Dai­ly life was cor­re­spond­ing­ly hec­tic. Peo­ple filled their sched­ules with work and leisure appoint­ments, and had hard­ly any time to sleep.” Amid it all, she heard many a boast­ful com­plaint that “We Japan­ese are crazy to work so much!” Yet “at the same time, I observed count­less peo­ple doz­ing on under­ground trains dur­ing my dai­ly com­mute. Some even slept while stand­ing up, and no one appeared to be at all sur­prised by this.”

Ste­ger, who research­es the social and cul­tur­al aspects of sleep in Japan, has found a rich sub­ject in inemuri, which on a cer­tain lev­el “is not con­sid­ered sleep at all,” and in fact works more like “a sub­or­di­nate involve­ment which can be indulged in as long as it does not dis­turb the social sit­u­a­tion at hand – sim­i­lar to day­dream­ing. Even though the sleep­er might be men­tal­ly ‘away’, they have to be able to return to the social sit­u­a­tion at hand when active con­tri­bu­tion is required. They also have to main­tain the impres­sion of fit­ting in with the dom­i­nant involve­ment by means of body pos­ture, body lan­guage, dress code and the like.”

Inemuri, a phe­nom­e­non whose doc­u­men­ta­tion goes back a mil­len­ni­um, also offers an uncon­ven­tion­al­ly angled win­dow onto sev­er­al aspects of Japan­ese cul­ture, such as the belief that “co-sleep­ing with chil­dren until they are at least at school age will reas­sure them and help them devel­op into inde­pen­dent and social­ly sta­ble adults.” That sure­ly gets peo­ple more com­fort­able, in every sense, with the idea of falling asleep in a pub­lic or qua­si-pub­lic space, as does Japan’s famous­ly high lev­el of pub­lic safe­ty. (Nobody who has some­where else to sleep does so on, say, the New York sub­way.)

In recent years, as you can see in the TRT World report above, Japan­ese com­pa­nies have actu­al­ly made pro­vi­sions for prop­er work­day nap­ping on the the­o­ry that a bet­ter-rest­ed work­er is the more pro­duc­tive work­er. (And they could­n’t be much worse-rest­ed there: “accord­ing to the US Nation­al Sleep Foun­da­tion’s poll of sleep­ing habits around the world,” reports the Guardian, “Japan­ese work­ers sleep, on aver­age, for just six hours 22 min­utes on work nights – less than those in any oth­er coun­try.”) That sounds for­ward-think­ing enough, and the most intense days of the Bub­ble Econ­o­my have indeed long gone, but do bear in mind that in Japan, one still does occa­sion­al­ly hear the word karōshi (過労死) — death by over­work.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Pow­er of Pow­er Naps: Sal­vador Dali Teach­es You How Micro-Naps Can Give You Cre­ative Inspi­ra­tion

How a Good Night’s Sleep — and a Bad Night’s Sleep — Can Enhance Your Cre­ativ­i­ty

Buck­min­ster Fuller’s Dymax­ion Sleep Plan: He Slept Two Hours a Day for Two Years & Felt “Vig­or­ous” and “Alert”

Dr. Weil’s 60-Sec­ond Tech­nique for Falling Asleep

“Tsun­doku,” the Japan­ese Word for the New Books That Pile Up on Our Shelves, Should Enter the Eng­lish Lan­guage

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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