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Tokyo's catnap culture

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By Peter Ford

“So, what did you do at the weekend, Mr Sato?”

“I slept.”

“Okaaayy. Er …”

The young English conversation tutor gropes for another lead as he tries to remember how many times this flat reply has killed off his favorite opening gambit. Could Mr Sato really have no interests or hobbies? More likely he is a member of the bleary battalions for whom sleep actually was the most enjoyable and noteworthy part of the weekend.

“All right. Please open your textbook.”

We have all sat next to one on the train. The shattered office worker, catching 40 precious winks. He droops sideways, recovers slightly, droops deeper, recovers again, then deeper, deeper, until his (or her) head makes contact with your shoulder. A sudden start, and a return to the upright. A brief nod of apology, and the whole process will begin again. If it were not for a convenient headrest, human or otherwise, many of them would end up full-length along the seat.

As any Tokyo commuter will tell you, this is quite a specialized art. Napping at the drop of a hat in uncomfortable or noisy places is one thing, but springing awake from the relative comfort of a train seat and leaping off at the correct station takes a little practice. It is a skill which comes in handy whether one is partying and/or studying every night, adapting to a new baby, or just putting in overtime to climb the company ladder. Catnap Culture

The national propensity for public slumber is not limited to trains, however. Almost nowhere is off-limits. A Facebook group called “Nobody Sleeps Like The Japanese Do” contains hundreds of snaps of people young and old, sprawled, huddled, snuggled, perched, balanced, draped or wedged in every conceivable place and position, snoozing peacefully.

Safe though public places may be here, one would not imagine that the daily cacophony of life in Tokyo would permit this kind of behavior, even if one could find a soft spot among the steel and concrete. The man standing up by the door of the train carriage, the biker balanced on the seat of his machine at the motorway service area, and the customer lying across three tall barstools demonstrate that quiet and comfort are not necessarily essential requirements for getting a bit of shuteye.

Even at play, the Japanese tend to run themselves into the ground. On the ski slopes, you will see the groups who got up before dawn “to avoid the traffic,” drove for five hours, had a can of coffee and a rice ball for breakfast, and hit the snow as soon as possible. Notwithstanding their full-day lift passes, they are in the restaurant at 1 o’clock, utterly exhausted, heads down on the tables, dreaming of dinner, a hot bath and bed. It is the same story at Disneyland, except that the sleepers will be cuddling soft toys rather than damp gloves, and often wearing some kind of furry ears instead of goggles.

Even the young can frequently be seen propped against parents or friends in public, or flat out on school desks. I remember strict bedtime rules from my own childhood, but Japanese parents are less fussy, and even very young children will accompany them on late-night trips to restaurants, video shops, convenience stores and the like. Hours at cram school, soccer practice, piano, swimming and ballet lessons, as well as the demands of TV and the latest video games, all help prepare Japanese youth for a future where a straight seven hours in a proper bed is pure luxury. By the time they enter the working world, they are old hands at snatching a quick kip.

Alcohol combined with long working hours, of course, is a great leveler, but cannot be blamed for many of these cases. Too much noise at home? Stress? More research is needed. A fairly recent study showed that around 60 percent of Japanese adults get between five and seven hours of sleep per day, though the survey participants were not asked where or when, let alone why or how.

So remember, “I slept” need not be a conversation- or lesson-killer. Next time, try probing a little deeper. You could probably work in enough grammatical points to keep your student busy for weeks. Just remember to keep it interesting. You wouldn’t want him dozing off, now would you?

This commentary originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).

© Japan Today

©2019 GPlusMedia Inc.

50 Comments
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Nor would you want your reader dozing off, now would you Mr. Ford?

Moderator: Please post something more pertinent.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

This is not unique to Tokyo.

Here in Kyushu, it is not unusual to see truck drivers with their feet up in the dashboard taking a nap during the day, or the roving salesman in his kei car with his seat fully reclined and sawing off a few logs. Even school teachers will put their heads down on the desks for half an hour or so.

Japanese people always talk about how hard they work, but an article like this and my experience lead me to think otherwise.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I love naps. JT makes me drowsy right now with this article. Snore

0 ( +0 / -0 )

It's funny, I never used to be able to sleep in loud/noisy places, but since moving here, the minute I sit down, I'm out like a light too. It's my own fault of course. And when you're on the train, and it's one of those half an hour to an hour long rides, dozing seems like the most practical thing to do with your time. Took some practice to get me to wake up at the right station though.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

The first three sentences reminded me why I despised eikaiwa so much

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I actually thought it was quite well-written! But then I don`t get out much what with the baby and all the stress...

but springing awake from the relative comfort of a train seat and leaping off at the correct station takes a little practice

Takes more than a little practice, and after a year of 4000 yen taxi fares taking us from the end of the line (Yokohama) back home (Kawasaki) we finally gave up and moved to Tokyo - cheaper on balance!

Japanese people always talk about how hard they work, but an article like this and my experience lead me to think otherwise.

This always makes me laugh for several reasons: firstly, playing solitaire, reading the paper and doodling for hours while you wait for the boss to leave doesnt count as "work", sitting in a coffee shop for hours on a weekday afternoon drooling at the foreign chick also doesnt constitute "work" and how ever much he tries to sell it to me, drinking with his work buddies when they spend 10% of the time actually talking about work and 90% of the time talking about his gaijin wife and whether she really does only cook chicken (not a metaphor!)...you got it, NOT work!

If the Japanese actually worked "smart" rather than "hard" they could all put in 8 hour days and be home to help bath the baby and have dinner with the family....aha! The penny plummeted!

0 ( +0 / -0 )

The758-- I know. Whenever I have to ask that question and I get a deadpanned response like that, I sometimes ask what they dreamed about or describe their bedroom or how soft the pillow was or something ridiculous.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

First time I rode on a Tokyo subway I looked around and thought: What's going on here, is everyone on some sort of national sleeping drug?

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Just my observations but my Japanese uni students are always saying "tsukareta" or "nemui" and falling asleep in their classes. I also think it's kind of rude sometimes the way people fall asleep in public. I told a Japanese guy who was passed out on a table in a coffee shop to move on when I had no where to sit down to drink my coffee. He got uppity but probably only because I'm a whitey!

0 ( +0 / -0 )

There used to be an elderly man in my previous company and he was an expert at falling asleep in meetings without looking like he was actually asleep.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Now you know why English teachers are not the favorites of the Jstudents? :)

It is a heavenly bliss when you take a nap in the moving train. It is very relaxing and good for the brains. If some glossy magazine carries an article on how a catnap can be beneficial for the brain, everyone would talk about it like as though it is a great discovery.

Can you imagine a 52 year old Japanese person with a busy schedule with golf, tennis, kendo, riding and cooks for the family at his spare time. I recommended to him to get some quality sleep on a weekend!

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Jkanda-- I agree, it is pretty relaxing. I always feel a lot better and ready to move after briefly napping on a long train ride.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I only missed my stop twice in 28 years. I am good.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

A lot of people who look like they're sleeping on the trains aren't really sleeping, I think. I used to sleep on the train (Yokohama to Shinbashi) until someone pointed out my snoring--I wouldn't want to get caught "doing the carp" for some eager shutterbug's camera.

With the average Tokyo worker's commute still somewhere in the 90 minute each way range, and office workers still stuck in the old unproductive first-train-to-last style of working, I'm not surprised there's so much napping going on. Students in middle school and high school who are involved in sports, band, and other practice-heavy activities often get to school by 6:30 in the morning, and don't leave until 7 or 8 at night, on top of commuting, studying, and everything else.

I always resented executives who thought nothing of sleeping in meetings, though.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

It's odd, is it me, or is the author vaguely disapproving of naps? Since I've been here I've quite gotten into the idea, and getting 20mins sleep on the train is quite a decent thing. Almost productive. I'm surprised he/she didn't quote recent surveys that claimed Japanese had the lowest amount of nightly sleep, but this in-the-day napping was noted in that report.

[I tried to put links in here, but the page said they were potentially offensive??]

Moderator: Our spam blocker won't let URLs be posted here.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

First time I rode on a Tokyo subway I looked around and thought: What's going on here, is everyone on some sort of national sleeping drug?

paulinusa -- how true. I thought maybe everybody here was on Prozac or something. I can honestly say I'v never napped on a train/subway here in nearly ten years. (Shinkansen excluded.) But, I usually am not on them for more that 5 or so stops. Plus, I enjoy the people watching too much.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Lovely article. Lacking the spleen we often see here on JT. And funny too!

I wish Japanese schools would just provide a few beds so that you can face your exhaustion on hard days instead of trying to struggle through it!

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Since when is napping something to be commended? How about getting a good night's sleep?

And if you can sleep on the train, that means you're one of the lucky few who can get a seat in the morning! Lucky you! I'd spend it more productively by reading or studying, but that's just me.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I've always been shocked when seeing very young kids out at 11pm or so, when my bedtime was pretty much set at 8 until end of elementary school, and 10 at best during middle high. Sleep deprivation leads to lack of concentration during the day after and ultimately various development problems, so it's amazing nothing's done for that...

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Fundamentally speaking, napping is not a bad thing, as long as it's not for an hour or more. A 10-15 minute nap can actually be good for you. Problem is, when all you're taking is naps, that's when the lack of a good night's sleep becomes apparent. I can only speak for myself in saying I know I don't sleep enough, so my "naps" are products of that. And possibly other Japanese people on the trains, though I don't assume.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I also think that major factors are that people drink so~~ much coffee here during the day to keep up that frenetic "I'm so busy !" appearance that they have major caffeine crashes later on.

Then they seem to spend an inordinate amount of time watching brainless late-night tv when they could be getting a good night's sleep.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

A lot of people who look like they're sleeping on the trains aren't really sleeping, I think.

I do that sometimes if I'm not reading, but only because after spending the day in an artificially lit office I can't hack the overly bright lighting in the train. I've thought about wearing sunglasses just for this and know that some people do the same.

Mostly I can't get how people here sleep at any time of the day. On the morning train, after you've had your night's sleep, showered and had breakfast (I hope!) how can you be sleepy again? Then after work my brain's always too fried to get drowsy. The Spanish have it right in my book, an hour or two siesta after lunch does you the world of good. But I can dream...

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I have nothing against naps, but I think most Japanese people aren't getting nearly enough sleep, including the kids. I've seen kids (around 6-8) sleep until the last stop of a train, when someone finally wakes them up and helps them get where they're going. I've had a kid fall asleep during bookwork in an English lesson. Had to get a staff member to help me wake the kid up, because he was just out cold after several attempts to keep his head up.

I remember my host family situation well. Everyone had to be up by 6. I had a really hard time doing that and managed to finagle it to 7 for myself. Mom got up at 4. She went to bed at 1. The little girl (7) got up with mom. The kids went to bed at 10. I would come home every day and need a loooooong 2-3 hour nap to get myself right. I can't imagine living every day of my life like that or trying to work while feeling like that. It was really tough.

My problem with train naps is that my shoulder is not a pillow. And you just instinctually know that some of those oyaji falling over on you are not really sleeping. I've had enough people pretend to be sleeping while they tried to touch me. People who were having no problem being upright or sleeping to one side suddenly start being magnetically attracted to you. I've never had a woman try to fall asleep on me. Ever. How weird is that? Just men. Granted, after a certain time the train is about 90% men, but still.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

JT got it all wrong, it's not catnap, it's practicing Zen !!

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I agree with Monkeyz. Nothing wrong with the occasional catnap (it's certainly a nice thing to do on a lazy Sunday afternoon) but naps shouldn't be used everyday on the train as a way to make up for a lack of sleep at night. 5 hours at night plus 1 hour to work and 1 hour from work does not really equal 7 hours of sleep. But hey, if you are an adult it's up to you how much sleep you wanna get.

Kids however need lots of sleep. 10 hours is probably best. I remember how shocked I was when I found out a 5-year-old I was teaching was going to bed at 10 or 11! Teenagers need a good amount of sleep, too. 6 hours a night just isn't enough for them to develop and function properly.

In my opinion, it's wiser to get a good night's sleep and spend have productive 7 hour day the next day than to get 5 or 6 hours of sleep and have to work longer because you are tired or can't focus.

I suppose sleeping on the train is okay as long as you are not snoring or leaning on someone but personally I like to spend my train time listening to music, thinking of ideas, planning, dreaming...

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I met a lass once who told me that her hobby was 'sleeping'.

Despite her looks, a duller conversation could not be had; a similar experience to that of the author with his student.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

With almost everyone napping, that's when/why the gropers go to " work " since no one is watching.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Monkeyz, I'm right there with you. I can't understand the near-abusive level of sleep deprivation that some people put themselves through.

I'm lucky to have an odd-hour job that lets me sleep during the mornings, and I always get eight hours unless I choose to do otherwise.

As a company employee I had to endure it; a typical working day was 8 AM to 10 PM, plus an hour-long commute each way, plus time to cook and bathe. Not enough time to sleep if all hobbies and personal time was eliminated.

They'd go further -- once we were at the office until 10 PM on a Friday night preparing for an event on Saturday morning. We had to be at the event at 7 AM, meaning that I had to be awake at 6 at the latest. So on Friday morning I set out all my clothes for Saturday and everything I'm going to need, so that I can sleep until the last possible minute, then jump into action. (Even then, I won't have enough sleep!)

And what do you think happens?

A co-worker takes it upon himself to call everyone and wake them up at ten minutes to five in the morning, before the event. "Just to make sure you're up and ready," he says.

And when the actual event finally finishes, everyone's nodding and bowing and thanking him for his diligence. I wanted to punch him in the face!

Now what I can't reconcile at all with this culture is that yawning is some kind of sin. There are two things that make you yawn: not enough sleep, and too much heat. Anyone working in a Japanese ofice is going to be enduring both of those, yet if you yawn, people get angry, citing boredom as the only possible reason to yawn. Hello? I can't gen enough sleep! (I mentioned this to a co-worker once, and his "solution" was: sleep on the train!)

0 ( +0 / -0 )

One place where you can't sleep is at a table in a food court. Every time I've put my head down on a food court table to try to catch a few winks, some busybody has come over and told me I can't sleep there.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

J-folks grab 40-winks anytime they can because the culture here exhausts even them.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

My university students even sleep during their exams.

I met a lass once who told me that her hobby was 'sleeping'. Despite her looks, a duller conversation could not be had; a similar experience to that of the author with his student.

Dunno about that - maybe you could suggest that you pursue this hobby together with her - much more fun!

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I'm not Japanese and I haven't napped since I was a toddler. But in Jp, somehow, even with a full night's sleep I find myself nodding off while on the train, waiting the car being filled up by overeager attendants, waiting for the wife to get ready to go out etc. Somehow it stops once I moved to China, even though the Chinese take plenty of naps too after too many late nights of mahjong and baijiu.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I sometimes have the odd student sleep during my exams at university. They never do well of course. When I went to driving school in japan, to get my motorbike licenses, one huge notice was dedicated to telling learner drivers to get enough sleep.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Sleeping is not a hobby, it's a bodily function.

When some bony spinster says her weekend activity was sleeping, I usually ask if she moved her bowels between Friday night and Monday morning. At least there's often some substance to that.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

“I slept.”

“Okaaayy. Er …”

The young English conversation tutor gropes for another lead as he tries to remember how many times this flat reply has killed off his favorite opening gambit ,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,

a suggestion to the young English conversation tutor, how about saying " who with? anyone I/we know ? "

0 ( +0 / -0 )

First time I rode on a Tokyo subway I looked around and thought: What's going on here, is everyone on some sort of national sleeping drug?

LOL exactly my thought. I actually never sleep except once or twice, but then I have to be seated and I always always stand. I think people ought to get more sleep during the night, so during the day you dont need a nap. Im not against napping but I find it a waste of time. As someone else pointed out earlier its a good time to read a book or study or whatevs.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

i find myself more napping since living in Japan,,,maybe it is the air??? Although in the countryside (Im sure Cleo will agree) it is so much easier to get a full nights sleep because it is pitch black,,whenever we holiday in Tochigi or Fukushima or Gifu etc,,,it is so easy to get a full nights sleep and walk around all day enjoying the 'countryside' (Im from NZ so countryside there and here is two very different things) I also think , once you get married, have kids, then your own personal time is pushed aside for someone elses greater good, and then when you finally get those 10 mins before bed, you try to push everything into it,,,,thus being tired, modern life plus family plus work = tired

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Alcohol combined with long working hours, of course, is a great leveler, but cannot be blamed for many of these cases. Too much noise at home? Stress? More research is needed.

I've always had a suspicion that the diet of (some) Japanese has something to do with their lethargy and tiredness - but I'm no nutritionist.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

It's not a shock anymore to see businessmen sleeping in meetings.

Sleeping on a train, oh no!

0 ( +0 / -0 )

It's not a shock anymore to see businessmen sleeping in meetings.

I've never seen anyone in the UK or Australia sleeping in meeting.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Agreed, there is more than just over worked people at the core here. NY, San Francisco, LA, people are busy and on the go too. But you never hear someone say they spent the weekend sleeping, unless they were sick.

I sadly think that there are legions of profoundly dull people out there with no hobbies or significant interests. Who are too lazy, uncreative or too anti-social to get out and do something on the weekend.

The folks who say that they slept through the weekend are often the same people who are dull as cold stones in any kind of conversation. In which case it is sad for them and probably fortunate for the rest of us that they are not out on weekends.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I've never seen anyone in the UK or Australia sleeping in meeting.

I'm talking about Japan.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

It has something to do with the early waking, I think. For years I had to put up with my J-husband bounding out of bed at 6 am insisting that we must get started on the day, but I'm happy to say that now he is getting older he's finally grasped the Western concept of the lie-in. In the old days, he was worn out by mid-afternoon and needed several naps to get through the day. The other point is that the Japanese ability to sleep anywhere can be a real asset. On long-haul flights I've seen entire planefuls of passengers fast asleep for hours with their heads on the fold-down tables in front of them - while I twist and turn, unsuccessfully trying to contort myself into a sleeping position.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Too much stimulus - constant announcements, people talking, adverts, noise - can also give people input overload and induce a sleep-like response. This doesn't explain nodding off during deathly dull meetings, however.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Quite simple - they don't sleep enough. Sleep less than 7 hours a night consistently and you'll be sleepy all day, hence falling asleep anywhere. I ask my Japanese friends what did you do last night, 'watched telly till 3am / read a book / spoke to my friend in Tokyo', and then act suprised when i suggest they go to bed earlier to prevent them being sleepy.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Sorry...what was the point of this comment...I started nodding off.

Search "Sleepy Japan" on YouTube. Its kind of funny, sort of disturbing, and a little bit sad.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Even at play, the Japanese tend to run themselves into the ground. On the ski slopes, you will see the groups who got up before dawn “to avoid the traffic,” drove for five hours, had a can of coffee and a rice ball for breakfast, and hit the snow as soon as possible.

That's because after the age of 5 or so, Japanese can't enjoy unadulterated fun without some form of suffering involved to alleviate the guilt.

Unfortunately, this kind of poor planning can be fatal (Google "Accidents on Half Dome" for an example)

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Surprisingly, I have just heard exactly same comment from the actual senior high school boy in some city near Nagoya. He is an ordinary 17 years kid. and he keeps saying he just wants to leave a classroom and go home, and sleep. He says he always stays in bed, sleeping during weekend. Once we were talking about 'weekend activity' in the classroom. question: 'What is your plan during weekend?' answer is 'Sleeping'. and I said to them 'I am asking your activity. ('Sleeping' is not an option as an 'activity'!)' Even this boy does not intend to go to University in future or nothing. not because of over-studying hard to enter good uni like some typical jap highschool kids do. He is not 'burnt-out' like poor businessman in Japan. He is just basically 'still'. But astonishingly he is not exceptional at highschools. More to say, easier to find this type of kids in the classroom than 'normal, active kids' who are very common in other parts of world. Weird. I really wonder what is going on in Japan.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

'Absolutely dormant'?

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Catnups,forty winks, catsleep, short sleep and snooze means to sleep for a short period of time. It will help refresh the mind, improve alertness, boost mood, increase productivity and even benefit the heart. There are three types of napping: A power nap is a short slumber of twenty minutes or less that terminates before occurence of deep slow wave sleep to quickly revitalize, improve alertness and motor skills. A caffeine nap is a short nap preceded by the intake of caffeine reducing driving incidents and subjective sleepiness. A polyphasic sleep avoids long sleep and instead takes regularly spaced shorts naps. Bottom line is stop feeling guilty about your nap and enjoy it. Have a nice day and ostukaresama.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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