I have been teaching English in one of Osaka’s most prestigious high schools. Despite it being one of the best high schools in the prefecture, I noticed a big problem in one of my classes – I would enter the classroom and 20 to 30 percent of my students are sleeping, and would stay asleep during my lesson. So, I did what any self-respecting teacher would do. I bought a foghorn.
But after using the said foghorn, I was told that I was wrong to wake the students. I was somehow the bad guy! This was my first major interaction with the uniquely Japanese idea of “inemuri” (居眠り) or “sleeping while present.”
If you have ever ridden a train in Japan, there is a good chance a middle-aged gentleman has fallen asleep on your shoulder. It is very common to see business people sleeping in parks, on benches, even at work or during business meetings. In many other countries, this type of behavior would be seriously frowned upon. The first time I saw a guy sleeping on a park bench I thought, “Must have had too much to drink.” But to many Japanese people, sleeping in public is actually a sign that you are tired and people sometimes consider those sleeping as very hard workers.
Everyone knows that Japanese workers work super hard and it is not so uncommon to work 60 hours a week. Japan is a country where there is a cultural prohibition to go home before your boss, so sometimes, workers don’t get a lot of sleep at home. Some people say falling asleep at work is actually a sign that you are a dedicated worker and that you care more for your work than for your own well-being. Dr. Brigette Stiger of Cambridge University puts it this way:
“Diligence, which is expressed by working long hours and giving one’s all, is highly valued as a positive moral trait in Japan. Someone who makes the effort to participate in a meeting despite being exhausted or ill demonstrates diligence, a sense of responsibility and their willingness to make a sacrifice. By overcoming physical weaknesses and needs, a person becomes morally and mentally fortified and is filled with positive energy.”
Next time you see some guy sleeping on a stairwell or an office lady starting to drool on your lapel, know that they might be hard workers. However, it is definitely better to be awake at all times during work hours. Therefore, do not follow them and try to work hard!