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Sleeping Beauties: An Ode to the Japanese Commuter

Given Japan’s refined social norms, some might assume it taboo to sleep in public. But as you travel around this bustling little city (and country), you’ll soon notice that public napping is not, in fact, forbidden. Rather, it is an activity in which people everywhere collectively engage. So much so that sleeping in public could be deemed a favorite Japanese pastime.

I come from the west—southern California to be precise. Despite Los Angeles’ terrible traffic and unreliable public transportation, you’ll find mostly coffee-high commuters eager to talk about last night’s primetime [insert sporting event here]. People stay awake because getting a catnap on a bus or train could result in a stolen wallet or worse. In the American southwest at least, sleeping while commuting is risky business.

On the contrary, most early morning trains in Fukuoka are muted capsules of snoozers. Riders are transported, whizzing past the world in a dream-like state, often crammed nose to chin as they go. Speaking is discouraged, cell phone use is prohibited and napping is commonplace.

Once, while taking my quotidian route to work, I sat mesmerized by a young man who had fallen asleep next to an equally young woman. I watched with amusement as he slowly dipped his head, drifting lower and lower until it was heavily mounting her shoulder. Her reaction to her slumping bench companion was like a delicately choreographed dance—when he swayed, she swayed and when he leaned, she leaned, until both passengers were bent over, almost parallel to their seats. Rather than take the western approach and offer a swift shove or sharp yell, the poor girl sat sour-faced and bore the weight of her new travel companion—like a shark to a remora. I suppose she did this to maintain the collective “harmony”—a true selflessness found in few corners of the earth.

And I’m not the only who’s noticed Japan’s unique public napping phenomenon. The internet is littered with blog rolls featuring images of commuters sprawled out on train pews, hunched over water fountains, spread-legged in office chairs and face down in bowls of ramen. But why are Japanese people so tired?

One explanation could come from the success of this petite nation. Japan boasts the 3rd largest economy in the world, with an equally impressive 4.6% unemployment rate (Japanese Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, 2012). Indeed, Japanese people work hard.

In fact, Japanese work culture seems to design people who relish overtime hours. Many a salaryman is expected to stay until the wee hours, leaving only after their superiors have gone—which can be as late as a workaholic desires. Being present is crucial, as the employee who stays the latest is considered most dedicated and most valuable. Additionally, the strong drinking culture contributes to nights spent in izakayas where employees do their best hobnobbing for that promotion or corner office. Students and teachers alike endure grueling school schedules with the hopes of achieving similar amounts of recognition. If you work, you are worthy.

Therefore, napping is a kind of pat on the back—a pleasant respite for having worked yourself to exhaustion. “Take your reward! You deserve your 10 minutes of uncomfortable sleep,” some might say. Maybe though, it’s all a bit too much.

Along with that impressive unemployment rate and GDP, Japan consistently reports among the highest suicide rates in the world. It could also be said that the huge amount of time spent working leaves little time for building families; hence the concerning and steady decline of the Japanese population. And that’s not to mention increased cases of stomach cancer (Mayoclinic, 2012) and depression due to risk factors like high stress and sleepless nights.

Now, I’m not implying that I know all on this subject. And I certainly understand that there are social pressures at work here undetectable to the untrained (read: non-Japanese). But come on people, get your six-eight hours, at home! Sleep is so much more refreshing (and beneficial) when it’s done atop your heavenly mound of futon and pillows. You work hard, you deserve that too. Dodesho?

by Jamina Ovbude
USA / English Teacher
Originally published in Fukuoka Now Magazine (fn160, Mar. 2012)

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Published: Mar 29, 2012 / Last Updated: Jun 13, 2017

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