The Japanese Art of (not) Sleeping

May 23, 2016

The Japanese don’t sleep. This is what everyone – the Japanese above all – say. It’s not true, of course. But as a cultural and sociological statement, it is very interesting.

I first encountered these intriguing attitudes to sleep during my first stay in Japan in the late 1980s. 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. The lifestyle of this era is aptly summed up by a wildly popular advertising slogan of the time, extolling the benefits of an energy drink. “Can you battle through 24 hours? / Businessman! Businessman! Japanese businessman!”

Many voiced the complaint: “We Japanese are crazy to work so much!” But in these complaints one detected a sense of pride at being more diligent and therefore morally superior to the rest of humanity. 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.

I found this attitude contradictory. The positive image of the worker bee, who cuts back on sleep at night and frowns on sleeping late in the morning, seemed to be accompanied by an extensive tolerance of so-called ‘inemuri’ – napping on public transportation and during work meetings, classes and lectures. Women, men and children apparently had little inhibition about falling asleep when and wherever they felt like doing so.

If sleeping in a bed or a futon was considered a sign of laziness, then why wasn’t sleeping during an event or even at work considered an even greater expression of indolence? What sense did it make to allow children to stay up late at night to study if it meant that they would fall asleep during class the next day? These impressions and apparent contradictions led to my more intensive involvement with the theme of sleep for my PhD project several years later.

Initially, I had to fight against prejudice as people were reluctant to consider sleep a serious topic for academic enquiry. Of course, it was precisely such attitudes that had originally caught my attention.

Sleep can be loaded with a variety of meanings and ideologies; analysing sleep arrangements and the discourse on it reveals attitudes and values embedded in the contexts in which sleep is organised and discussed. In my experience, it is the everyday and seemingly natural events upon which people generally do not reflect that reveal essential structures and values of a society.

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