I have been teaching English in one of Osaka’s most prestigious high schools for years. Despite it being one of the best high schools in the prefecture, I noticed a big problem in one of my classes. Whenever I entered the classrom, I would find that 20 to 30 percent of my students were sleeping and would stay asleep during the entirity of my lesson. After a few times going through the same experience, I did what any self-respecting teacher would do: I bought a foghorn.
My students woke up and were able to hear what I was teaching; not to mention that they were probably terrified of falling asleep again, fearing the loud sound of the foghorn. The results were great… or so I thought.
After using the said foghorn, someone told me that I was in the wrong for having disturbed my students’ sleep. I couldn’t believe that I had somehow become the bad guy for wanting my students to be awake! Such are the experiences with cultural barriers, and I knew I had just crashed face first against that wall.
This had been my first major interaction with the uniquely Japanese idea of inemuri (居眠り) or “sleeping while present.” Inemuri differs from hirune (昼寝), which refers to an actual nap that one has planned. Thus, hirune usually takes place at home, while inemuri occurs in public spaces.
If you constantly take trains in Japan, there is a good chance someone has fallen asleep on your shoulder, whether it was the stereotypical middle-aged gentleman wearing his work suit, a polished businessperson, or a tired student has fallen asleep on your shoulder. It is very common to see businesspeople sleeping in parks, on benches, and even at work or during business meetings. In many other countries, this type of behavior would be seriously frowned upon since sleeping is considered to be disrespectful and a sign that one is bored.
The first time I saw a guy sleeping on a park bench I thought, “He 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 people work a lot, and it is not so uncommon for people to work even 60 hours a week. That is why Tokyo can be considered as one of the worst cities to live. Japan is a country where there is a cultural prohibition to go home before your boss, which results in employees staying at their offices hours after they finished working even though they are just wasting their time. Once their boss or another employees gutsy enough to leave stands up, they will feel free to go home. Add the long commuting times that for some people living in commuter towns can exceed one hour, some people end up getting home knowing than in just a few hours they will have to be on their way to work once again. As a result, sometimes people don’t get a lot of sleep.
To make things worse, sometimes there are drinking parties after work:
Nomikai (飲み会) are Japanese drinking parties that can take place for any reason. Though they are usually held to commemorate something important like a new business deals or the arrival of new employees, they can actually be organized for no reason whatsoever. It is not uncommon to hear of people who have to attend Nomikai once a week or even a few times a week.
Missing a Nomikai can derail one’s work reputation, so they are technically mandatory. Nomikai are also predominantly popular in more conservative businesses and in companies or departments headed by older men. Newer businesses, smaller companies, and companies and departments headed by women don’t favor Nomikai as much.
It is also not uncommon for employees who are very tired to skip lunch altogether, instead opting to take a nap at their desks. While skipping such an important meal is not a great idea, lack of sleep can be very retrimantal to people’s efficiency. Therefore, some people prioritize their nap and instead of lunch have some light meals.
And while it’s nice that one can sleep at their desk without feeling embarrassed, it really is a shame that not many companies have nap rooms like those one can find at airports:
Installing them would really enhance the definition of a power nap and perhaps turn napping at work from inemuri to hirune. Once can dream, though.
Next time you see someone sleeping on a stairwell or starting to drool on your lapel, consider the conditions that led them to fall asleep outside their homes, and don’t do anything that could wake them up… unless their head is swinging like a pendulum every time the train moves and hitting you.
It is of course better to stay awake at all times, but if you can’t, rest assured that if you fall asleep at your desk or on the train only foreigners will judge you.
And for students, who fall asleep during class, it’s actually not really recommended that you do that. While my methods were considered unorthodox, sleeping in class is something that is not truly accepted and could result in a student’s grades plummetting and/or a meeting with their parents.