Japan Today

Here
and
Now

kuchikomi

Japanese generally sleep badly - why, what effect does it have on body, mind and country as a whole?

15 Comments
By Michael Hoffman

Sleep to the sleepless is the most precious thing there is. Deprived of it, you’d give anything for it. Ask any insomniac, if you’re not one yourself. Odds are high you are, if you’re Japanese. Japan, says the fitness magazine Tarzan (April 11) citing a 2021 OECD study, is the most sleepless country in the world. It averages 7 hours, 22 minutes’ sleep per night, an hour and more behind the international average (8 hours, 28 minutes) and almost two hours behind sleep leader South Africa (9 hours, 13 minutes). For fuller perspective consider China (9 hours 2 minutes), the U.S. (8 hours 51 minutes) and England, France, Italy and Spain (8 hours, 28 minutes to 8 hours, 36 minutes).

Tarzan’s own Japan research drives the point home, showing nearly 70 percent of its respondents feeling sleep-starved.

Why does all life sleep? It’s like asking why all life dies. There’s no clear answer. But the fact is clear enough. Try defying it. You can, up to a point. In 1964 a 17-year-old American named Randy Gardner set a record that lasted years, going 11 days 24 minutes – 264.4 hours – without sleep. Tarzan quotes his diary: “Day 2: irritated, can’t concentrate. Day 3: Nausea. Day 4: hallucinations… Day 7: slurred speech… Day 9: can’t converse… Day 10: memory and verbal skill down… Day 12: sleep 15 hours.”

Why did he do it? For science, said the self-professed “science nerd” at the time. His experiment was observed and certified by a sleep specialist, and it made the Guinness Book of Records. It sparked a competitive frenzy, record claimant egging on record claimant until at last, which turned out to be 1997 when Guinness canceled that particular category for fear of health damage, one Robert McDonald was credited with going sleepless 453 hours and 40 minutes – three hours shy of 19 days.

Given the determination, you can put the body and brain through all kinds of contortions without too much lasting damage – Gardner woke from his long sleep feeling fine, though now, at 77, he’s said to suffer still from severe bouts of insomnia. All in all, it’s probably best to respect the natural rhythms, and what nature requires of us in return for normal life lived at full capacity is remittance – a kind of tax, if you will – of one-third of our lifetime in the form of sleep.

The “body clock” is a familiar enough notion. We rise with the sun and, in a manner of speaking, set with it. Dawn dawns and the brain secretes cortisol, the “wake up” hormone. Its opposite number is melatonin, which flows with the darkness and makes us drowsy. Artificial light vastly extended work- and playtime. The body protested in vain. Finally it stopped protesting. But its cooperation is grudging and sometimes (to resume the metaphor) taxing – at worst horribly so. Remember Chernobyl? The space shuttle Challenger? The Exxon Valdez? Respectively: site in today’s Ukraine of a 1986 nuclear explosion; the U.S. space shuttle that (also in 1986) exploded 73 seconds after liftoff; the supertanker that ran aground in 1989 off the coast of Alaska, spilling 37,000 tons of crude oil into pristine waters – all disasters which have imprinted themselves indelibly on the grim burdened consciousness of our time; was lack of sleep their ultimate cause? It’s at least possible, speculates Tarzan.

It’s a certainty in one of Japan’s more notorious train mishaps, fortunately not disastrous thanks to an auto-control system that brought a speeding shinkansen to a smooth halt, waking the driver from an eight-minute doze. (U.S. media giant CNN covered the 2003 incident with a smirk, filing its report under “Offbeat News” and quipping, “The driver brought new meaning to the phrase, ‘a quick nap.’”).

Nor do any doubts linger about the 2012 bus crash in Gunma Prefecture, fatal to seven Tokyo Disneyland-bound tourists. The driver nodded off, the bus rolled on.

“To sleep, perchance to dream,” said Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Dreams take us to the most fantastic places, Disneyland is nothing to them, thrusting us into the most fantastic situations. A common theme, especially in these harried times, says Tarzan, is pursuit – by people, by time; we’re late, we quicken our pace, our pursuers gain on us; sometimes we take flight, flying as high as any bird; more often we’re paralyzed. Do dreams mean anything? Tarzan’s chilly analysis reduces them to facts of brain physiology – reason sleeps, the emotions play, relishing their interval of freedom. Regardless of their reliability or lack thereof as guides to the future or the deeper meanings of the past, they probably do us good, a necessary vent of pent-up stress.

Let our closing image be of dozing train commuters, one of several fixtures of Japanese life that (along with ubiquitous vending machines, clean safe streets and clean, cleansing bidet-equipped public toilets) especially bemuse visiting foreigners. Commuter train sleepers, asleep and helpless among thousands of perfect strangers, seem an astonishing phenomenon in a dangerous, threatening, often violent world. Is Japan less dangerous, less violent than elsewhere? Maybe it is. Visitors who can think so are heartened by the thought. Other things, too, they may infer from the sleepers about everyday life in Japan: long working hours, long commutes, and of course fatigue, maybe fatigue above all. Does the train nap help? It’s better than nothing, Tarzan allows – but no substitute for that increasingly elusive casualty of progress, the good night’s sleep.

© Japan Today

©2024 GPlusMedia Inc.

15 Comments
Login to comment

From personal experience of being married to a Japanese person, living with their family,and living in numerous apartment buildings,I'd have to say that generally people stay up way too late, watching overly flashy and noisy T.V, illuminated by fluorescent lighting,drinking alcohol to unwind.

During the night, unnecessary bosozoku, ambulance,police and fire engine sirens

Then comes the daylight-saving free early sunrise with the obligatory P.A announcements and chime,if not preceded by the need to prepare breakfast and bento for the family in the early hours.

Need I say more?

12 ( +13 / -1 )

My Japanese spouse has no problems with sleeping as do I. She is asleep within a few minutes. Difference she sleeps on her back like most Japanese. I sleep on my side.

-2 ( +2 / -4 )

It's not "badly". It's "poorly".

4 ( +5 / -1 )

averages 7 hours, 22 minutes’ sleep per night

I might have been here too long as that sounds pretty decent. The average high schooler who has so much crammed into a day as though they're living on Pluto would probably love seven unbroken hours of sleep.

7 ( +7 / -0 )

piskian

poor darling. you have my sympathy.

I watched a Japanese girl youtube channel where she shows her evryday life and i can conclude that Japanese do sleep less but seemingly not very much affected by it that's why i conclude they are superhumans. She goes to sleep around 23\23.30 and wakes up at 5.30\6 then slowly prepares breakfast or sth unrelated to before work routine (why wont she sleep longer instead?!) after work she is still energetic enough to prepare dishes for dinner, dishwash, have a bath, read a book...maybe its sth wrong with me but i barely get up after 7 hours of sleep and i can barely stand up straight in the kitchen after work to prepare dinner...sigh.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

I usually sleep about six and a half hours. Going to bed later and reducing this isn't a problem, but getting up early makes me a zombie all day.

Most folk I know are either morning people or nighthawks. They wake up early but get sleepy in the late evening, or they hate getting up early but work happily into the small hours. Either way, respect the needs of your body whatever they are. You need it to last.

Too many Japanese apartments have thin walls and single glazing. Neighbour noise from those late night TV shows and traffic noise (central Kyoto must be the loudest place in Japan) are not easy to sleep through. Only a few people make it into the JT having carefully chosen something from their tool box and embedded it in a noisy neighbour, but many more of us have wanted to. Have some thought for your neighbours. Wear headphones. People need sleep.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

I think it is a lot of different things, but working culture is probably a big one.

A lot of Japanese people work long hours, and on top of that they have an hours commute to get home, so they don't get home until 9 or 10. And I can understand that they want a little bit of me-time after a 12 hour work day, but that means that they don't get to bed until midnight at earliest.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

Considering their long life expectancy maybe we should emulate them. I find that those that sleep only a few hours a day actually make up for it on the weekends. The women are very lazy and sleep anytime of the day.

-1 ( +2 / -3 )

"Sleeping badly" and low sleep hours are not the same thing. You can sleep 12 hours a night and still sleep badly as a result of insomnia, restless legs syndrome, narcolepsy or sleep apnea.

9 ( +9 / -0 )

I touch my pillow and that's it. Never had a problem sleeping anywhere.

-3 ( +0 / -3 )

From personal experience of being married to a Japanese person, living with their family,and living in numerous apartment buildings,I'd have to say that generally people stay up way too late, watching overly flashy and noisy T.V, illuminated by fluorescent lighting,drinking alcohol to unwind.

During the night, unnecessary bosozoku, ambulance,police and fire engine sirens

Then comes the daylight-saving free early sunrise with the obligatory P.A announcements and chime,if not preceded by the need to prepare breakfast and bento for the family in the early hours.

Need I say more?

You're right, and my wife and her parents are like you described. She asks sometimes why I don't stay up a little. I tell her, "the same reason you tell our kids to go to bed at 9 pm. They need their sleep and so do I." Actually, I'm in bed by around 10:30 at the latest, since I'm usually up by 5:30 to make breaky, get ready and head off to work by 7:00, while she's just waking up at 7. She's usually up at night having a few beers while I really don't drink much until the weekend, when even then, I don't drink all that much.

The human body needs rest and recharging. Simply put. Plus, I get my clothes ready for the next day and check my next day's "To do" list.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

This society's love for sleep deprivation is something I'll never understand. When I was looking for jobs back in the day, many companies would have a blurb on their website where a young employee describes "a day in the life", with a typical daily schedule showing when they wake up, leave for work, eat lunch, finish work, etc., and every single one of them was sleep-deprived, sometimes severely; they would proudly boast of going to bed around midnight or sometimes much later, and then waking up at 6 or 7 AM to start on the next day.

There was plenty of virtue-signaling ("at 9 PM I turn my computer on to do a quick e-mail check to get a head start on the next day") but the one that was the biggest turn-off was that not getting enough sleep basically went without saying. Not something that would make me want to join that company!

2 ( +2 / -0 )

If you don't have the luxury of getting the recommended number, i guess you can make it up by the quality of your sleep (up to a certain extent)

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Why do people wake up so early here.

When I got married and had kids that was one of the hardest.

Why do you need two hours to get ready for school and not even having a morning shower.

Everytime I go back to Ireland hardly any one wakes up before 8.

Sitting in the kitchen wondering where everyone is.

At least the dawn chorus is good

2 ( +2 / -0 )

"Sleeping badly" and low sleep hours are not the same thing. You can sleep 12 hours a night and still sleep badly as a result of insomnia, restless legs syndrome, narcolepsy or sleep apnea.

Very true.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Login to leave a comment

Facebook users

Use your Facebook account to login or register with JapanToday. By doing so, you will also receive an email inviting you to receive our news alerts.

Facebook Connect

Login with your JapanToday account

User registration

Articles, Offers & Useful Resources

A mix of what's trending on our other sites