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.
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.