Dec 16, 2016

On 'inemuri' and the expat's prospects of sleeping on the job in Japan

On 'inemuri' and the expat's prospects of sleeping on the job in Japan photo

You don’t have to spend too long ‘in country’ to recognize that our Japanese hosts have a remarkable propensity to sleep wherever they can be stationary for more than a few moments. This could even be standing on a busy train, one hand hooked to the hand strap, the rest of the body swaying and jerking to the movement of the carriage. It could also be some brutally unforgiving concrete. It’s not so unusual to see a salaryman type reclined (or sprawled out) on say, a step to a restaurant. Back home passers by might stop to check for a pulse. Here in Japan, such repose may at best warrant a cursory glance. In the case of the former we can probably put this down to a long slog at the office, rather than some conscientious ‘power nap’. Whilst the latter may be also be down to one of these options, it’s more likely to be the effects of alcohol (although sometimes the time of day casts this into doubt). 

Scrolling through Twitter recently an observation jumped out from a fellow expat at work in the offices of Japan.  They were remarking that a colleague (another expat) had assimilated to life in Japan enough that they now felt it OK to fall asleep at work.

Looking from the outside in, the idea of the Japanese workforce getting some shut eye while they’re on the job seems tough to believe. If we think we know anything about Japan and the Japanese before we spend any time here, it’s that they work hard. This is undoubtedly true if we take working hard to mean spending a lot of time at one’s place of work. It comes as a surprise then to read about a culture of sleep that has found its way out of the bedroom and into the workplace.  And not just in a solitary Tweet.  Once can find a number of pieces written about the tolerance of sleep in the Japanese office.

I feel like I may have witnessed this myself while working in the public school system here in Japan where a student falling asleep in class was, to a certain extent, tolerated. Early on said student would receive a flustered, passive aggressive scolding from the teacher who would sooner rather than later resign themselves to this being the student’s want and it would be taken no further than that. There seemed to be two forms of reasoning here; one was that the student had been studying into the small hours back home, had probably done some sports club drills in the morning, and now had nothing else to give. The other, that the student wasn’t meant for the academic environment anyway. 

Poor show or a reflection of commitment?

Sleep wasn’t the exclusive remit of the students. In the teachers' room it wasn’t unusual to see members of staff sat at their desks, their head on the desk. The first time I saw this I felt that frisson of excitement one gets at the prospect of someone about to be humiliated. It never came. It was never remarked upon. Working at the school, I discovered what I took to be quiet appeals from some teachers to colleagues, bosses, and institution as a whole as to how hard they had been working. Much like a student might try to impress a teacher by going overboard with their homework or making a show of their diligence with a loaded question, I felt I was seeing the same thing in the teachers; the unspoken competitions to see who would be the last to leave, dramatic late entrances into the teacher’s room like they’d stayed behind to fend off the hoards, and those ‘uncontrollable’ naps at the desk, perhaps (and bizarrely), the ultimate show of one’s effort. Back home the first two would make you no friends in any workplace environment, and the latter would appear as laziness to the people upstairs.  

It’s sleep, but not as we know it.

Siesta, power nap, 40 winks, whatever the term and whatever the situation sleep, even in bed next to a loved one, is solitary. Perhaps it’s Japan’s constant sense of the group then that has given rise to a different term ‘inemuri’ (居眠り); a dictionary will likely define this as 'doze' or 'to doze off'.  However, this doesn't seem quite nuanced enough.  Actually, closer inspection of the constituent kanji characters will reveal the first meaning ‘to be present/living/in residence’ and the other meaning ‘sleep’. I’m here but I’m sleeping.  Maybe it’s a bit like us saying, So and so is here in body but not in spirit.  

If I’ve seen a few students and teachers doing a bit of inemuri, I’ve seen plenty more workers fall asleep during meetings, presentations, and talks. Depending on the situation, back home this is just begging for the person in charge to direct a question to the culprit such that A) they wake up and, B) everyone can have a good laugh at them. Whatever the cause of the sleep, it’s likely to be taken as a slight by whoever is in charge. One therefore should make every effort to stay awake. In Japan, I’ve yet to see a sleeping participant be at the other end of a question or spiky remark.  

The cynic might be tempted to pass scorn on inemuri as an excuse rather than a legitimate state of being. While it’s tempting to follow this line of thinking, we can perhaps witness good examples of this ‘present but sleeping’ state on the nation’s commuter trains. Here, our hosts have an uncanny ability to ‘sleep’ right up until their stop, at which time they can come to and alight the train without any sign of disorientation. Maybe there is something in this, or maybe it’s a product of brutal repetition, a bit like how we get from work/school to home without even stopping to check we’re on the correct route.  

So I’m here but I’m sleeping, and such has been my commitment to the cause I’m deserving of this. Does this mean it’s OK for the hard working, diligent expat in Japan to sleep on the job? How much service does one have to give before we’re afforded this perk?  

It’s an interesting question. Becoming a fully fledged member of ‘the group’ in Japan is a tall order but maybe this is where we need to be in order to do inemuri, if we can at all (at work).  Before we all jump to often perceived inequalities between us and hour hosts, let's remember that the expat is afforded some exclusive perks; the kid-glove treatment, the lack of responsibility, the safety net of cultural misunderstanding, and a level of tolerance that comes from an intrinsic belief that eventually we’ll leave Japan and thus do not warrant the effort to instil familiar rules and norms.  Right, so is this inemuri business acceptable or not?

When I asked colleagues about the possibility of me taking 10 mins to sleep at the desk, answers varied; it could depend on group, team, department, boss, or one's own standing. Overall though, it wasn’t seen as a good thing. Despite this, I have never seen it addressed it whatever situation it's occurred.   

The fact that a sleeping worker is unlikely be reprimanded, rather than be down to a warm tolerance, may simply be a reflection of a society that is at pains to avoid confrontation. Rather than be explicitly told what is right or wrong, in the workplace in Japan one should follow the example of others and read the terrain so to speak. Fit in, would be a good way of putting it. In a rather ominous tone, I was also told that while certain discretions might not be addressed there and then, they would be noted and could turn up in an end of year/contract evaluation.  

Former British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, is said to have only slept for four hours each night.  The British workforce, according to an article in The Guardian (Japanese firms encourage their dozy workers to sleep on the job - Aug 2014), are getting more than that. Rather, it’s the Japanese who clock up the fewest hours of sleep, at six hours 22 minutes on school nights (although still more than Mrs. Thatcher). This the lowest of any country in a 2013 study by the National Sleep Foundation (U.S.). The focus of The Guardian piece is on a trend amongst companies in Japan to encourage employees to take naps with a view to improving performance at work and sites that even the Japan Government’s health ministry recommends that workers be taking naps of up the 30 minutes in the afternoons.  

So now I’m really confused! Is inemuri OK, or isn’t it? Maybe it needs to be specifically sanctioned?

When I look at the people around me, those I asked about the possibility of inemuri and who didn’t seem to think it was a good idea, they are a younger crew, and maybe there is something in this. Times, however slowly, are changing in Japan. The future, one could argue, belongs to a generation whose heroes are the fresh-faced t-shirted entrepreneurs and 30s billionaires from Internet start-ups. These people look like they wouldn’t know how to put on a tie much less do it day after day until they’re about ready to drop. Perhaps then, in the same way that my young colleagues question workplace inemuri, they also question the idea of giving their life to the corporation, an idea which might make inemuri acceptable . If 10 minutes of afternoon kip means staying beyond 10pm to justify it, these people would rather stay awake and get out earlier. 

It's not looking good then for the expat working in Japan who fancies a nap during work hours.  

Outside of the workplace, we can be pretty sure that inemuri is acceptable.  It's not without its perils, however.  The state of being has become something of a target for the snap-happy, social-media savvy expat. Countless present-but-not-really locals have unknowingly become subjects in the search for an online viral hit; Top 10 Images of Japanese Sleeping in Public, Exhausted Salarymen Sleeping in Doorways, (Insert random number here) Ways the Japanese Sleep on Trains. If one could somehow tie this in with kittens, there’s a million hits right there.

Whilst we may mock and gawp at inemuri in our hosts, it seems our concept of it is getting out of control.  I recently spotted a question on a Japan-related forum, something along the lines of, ‘Do the Japanese sleep in cabinets?’.

If there's is something to be admired here though, it’s that it might actually be safe to sleep in a number of public situations.  In some it could never be recommended, but at least here in Japan one can be comfortably sure of waking up unscathed, wallet and watch present and correct.  One wonders if this situation is born from the same mentality that makes it hard to scold the workplace sleeper?

Either way, back home sleeping in random public places is an increasingly unlikely prospect.  And perhaps this serves the expat in Japan well.  It helps to keep us awake at the office and prevents us from ending up in some online rogues gallery in which our hosts have turned the tables on us; Best 10 Images of Foreigners Sleeping on Trains Ever

Have you ever tried sleeping at work in Japan?  If so, let us know how it went down?

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National Sleep Foundation



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