Z is for Zzzz…

Everyone loves a good sleep. Which is why I’ve always wondered why there are so many songs out there extolling the wonders of partying all night and into the morning, but none about having a good-old-fashioned snooze. True, Ke$ha will never hit the top of the charts with ‘Horlicks and Scented Candles’, but you get my point.

And yet, it’s weird when you consider it, but every country and culture has it’s own attitude and approach to sleep. I only have to mention the word ‘siesta’, for example, and you know instantly what I’m talking about, what cultures and countries this relates to, and if you are on the ball, why it is so. But do you know the Japanese equivalent? If You don’t, well, I’m not surprised, for two reasons:

Firstly, Japan and it’s people have a reputation of being sleep-deprived, and although I pride myself on being something of a sterotype-buster, this is absolutely true. Most native Japanese would think nothing of eating dinner around midnight and staying up until 2am…ON A WORK NIGHT. And this is not just adults, either: when I taught at Junior High and even Elementary schools, whenever the task at hand came to asking about what time they went to bed, I was often the one with the earliest bedtime. Yep, and anything before 11pm was “Hayai!” (“Wow, that’s so early!”). And just to repeat for emphasis, I include elementary kids in that group there.

Secondly, that ‘Japanese equivalent of a Siesta’ thing was kind of a trick question. Yeah, sorry about that. But here’s the thing: a siesta is one specific time of the day, but the Japanese will make up their sleep debt whenever and however they can during the day. Sleeping on the train, sleeping in school, sleeping at work, and yes, even sleeping while standing up. I have seen this all and more, and it is known as ‘inemuri’ (居眠り), those short catnaps taken to help clear the head and boost productivity and effectiveness at work. Notice that that the function of inemuri is seen as being purely for work – a telling difference between the cultures of the siesta and the inemuri.

“So what?” I can hear you say, “We have all caught some quick z’s during the day now and then, what else is new?” True, but the frequency which you will see it in Japan is quite shocking. If you ever visit Japan and want to see inemuri in full flood, get on any train from a station just outside of Tokyo that goes into Tokyo betwen 7am and 9am on a weekday. And no, you haven’t accidentally boarded a sleeper carriage; half of the carriage will be sleeping or trying to. And this includes teenagers and kids, too.

It happens in the workplace, as well. Many’s the time I’ve looked up from a presentation to someone nodding off in the back. Now, you may think that this is seen as being some damning faux pas – how dare they abuse the sanctity of the workplace?! Well, in fact, the opposite is nearly true: it is a mixture of tolerance, knowing full well that you have been or will be the one snoozing in another meeting, and also sign of commitment, that you were so thoroughly committed to the job that you need to sleep a bit to recover. This early-start, late-finish attitude to work really gathered steam during the post-war economic miracle years, and continues to this day, bringing with it chronic sleep deprivation.

So yes, sleep is a fascinating insight into a culture, and Japan is no exception. We probably won’t see humans evolve a way to sleep while properly standing or with our eyes voluntarily open in our lifetime, but if it does happen down the line, chances are the first to do it will be the Japanese. And frankly, that is not something to be proud of. The inemuri is a symptom of a problem – lack of quality sleep – that in of itself speaks of a much wider issue. When a teacher three or four times the age of kids has more energy than them, you know something really, very wrong.

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