Caught Napping – Sleeping On The Job In Japan

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On August 28, 2014
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Photo by mackensieleigh

We have all been there. It’s the afternoon, that karaage bento you had for lunch weighs heavily on the belly, the office is like a sauna, and the gentle repetitious overhead thrumming of the fan mingles with the hushed murmuring of co-workers, luring you under. Your eyelids start to droop. A yawn slips out and consciousness slips away. Until…

What was that? Did you just fall asleep? You awake with a jolt as your chin hits your chest. A shake of the head, and a rub of the eyes. Come on, pull your socks up and get back to work, you tell yourself. Sleeping in the middle of the day? At work? Shame on you.

At only 7 hours and 43 minutes a day, Japan’s average sleep levels are the second lowest in the developed world

But if you live and work in Japan, this tiredness is to be expected. At only 7 hours and 43 minutes a day, Japan’s average sleep levels are the second lowest in the developed world, more than 30 minutes less than the inhabitants of the other OECD countries (only the South Koreans sleep less). However, when it comes to weekdays, this average drops significantly to a yawn inducing six hours and 22 minutes. It’s no surprise that everyone is so bloody knackered.

Japan’s working day is notoriously brutal. Mornings start early and evenings finish late. When employees leave, people call not “good bye” or “have a good evening”, but “otsukaresama deshita” (お疲れ様でした), which can be literally translated as ‘you must be tired’, the inference being that if you are leaving, you must have worked yourself into the ground, to exhaustion. However, woe betide the salaryman (サラリーマン) or office lady (OL) who leaves before the boss, for doing so is a tacit admission that you care nothing for your co-workers, that you are a slacker, and that, heaven forefend, you care more for your family than you do for the company.

With these chronically long days as standard, it is perhaps not surprising that people like to take a little bit of a snooze mid-day. In most western countries, regularly napping at work would see you facing disciplinary measures. Sleeping in the middle of the day? That’s for infants! However sleeping on the job in Japan, is pretty much par for the course. Whether it be on the subway, in cafes or local stores, having a kip is part of daily life. Some cafes offer a lunch and nap combo set where workers can stretch out on reclining chairs, others provide lounger rental at a cost of Y160 for a ten-minute snooze.

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In some industries napping at work is considered not only acceptable but even desirable. Inemuri (居眠り) is the practice of ‘sleeping while present’ and has long been part of Japanese work culture, proof as it is that the sleeper spends so much time at the office that he or she is unable to sleep at home. However, traditionally this practice has been the preserve of only those at the very top or at the very bottom of the office hierarchy, and those indulging are expected to remain upright at their desks, as to appear socially active, despite being anything but.

This is starting to change though. Following research that shows mistakes are often made by tired, sleepy workers, particularly in the afternoons, the Japanese government have recently released guidelines on the importance of workers’ sleep, particularly that of working mothers who also shoulder household responsibilities, and have recommended that everyone take a 30 minute nap in the afternoon. Employees who do so are said to work more happily, readily and, most importantly, more productively with less mistakes.

So, many companies have begun to allow staff to slump in their seats. Others have installed comfy sofas and small nap rooms in their offices, seeing this as a cost effective way (i.e. other than the outlay on a few pillows, free) of increasing productivity and creating a happier, less grouchy working atmosphere.

So, what are you waiting for? Don’t stifle that yawn. As long as you can be the epitome of productiveness later on, embrace that sleepiness, get your head down for a bit of shut eye. But please, keep the snoring to a minimum volume. Some of us are trying to get some kip, you know. Sweet dreams!

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Pop culture writer and full-time tebasaki abuser.

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  • mokalovesoulmate says:

    I am about considering myself to work in Japan as programmer. But I am not sure how things work there…is it a good idea?

  • GuestWho says:

    Ha! When I was doing my kenshuu 10 years ago, I used to go to the toilet for 15 mins, to sleep the tiredness off. Sure, I had to get up at 4 am to go to work and by 1pm (post lunch) my eyelids would not cooperate. so there…

  • Con H says:

    I would be grateful to have on average 7 hours and 43 minutes sleep a night or even 6 hours 22 minutes. As a software developer I’m working 14-15 hour shifts to keep with deadlines and my boss would fire me on the spot if he caught me nodding off. I do however, get an hour lunch where I can just eat and sleep for a bit. I average just under 5 hours sleep. I do get the Sunday off to catch up on the Z’s thankfully.

    From the UK

  • Yoshiyuki TEZUKA says:

    Japanese are often explained as the following three word: silent, smile, and sleep. Thank you for your articles.

  • I know that feeling, I take a nap at work every time I can.

  • María Cañizal says:

    Ummm, sorry, but for your information, Spaniards DO NOT sleep in the middle of the day, specially if they have to work.
    I’m a Spaniard myself and most of our working hours are from 9:30 till 18:30 in the afternoon, with a stop of 1 hour to eat lunch. So no time to sleep at all.
    The “siesta” is only for those who don’t have a job, are kids, or whose working hours let them. And even if Spaniards have time, sometimes they just don’t nap. Is a tradition that is no longer part of a regular Spaniard life.
    Furthermore, sleep at your job in Spain can mean to get fired afterwards… Is something just disrespectful, and you are not allowed to do that.
    So stop putting us as an example when you write about napping. Or if you do, don’t put it as we are always asleep. Because we’re not. At least not anymore.

    • Mark Guthrie says:

      Wow Maria, I was kidding in the article about the Spanish napping. I am aware that the ‘siesta culture’ is no longer in existence, although as the Japanese government research shows, perhaps that should no longer be the case. ¡Viva la Siesta! say I.

  • Chris Foley says:

    You know… I have had many chats with retired elderly gentlemen about this. If you ask many of them: “If you could go back in time, what would you do differently?” They typically respond with: “I wish I could have been there for my family, and been apart of their lives.”

    They work so much, and so hard, disregarding the safety and we’ll being of their families for the sake of their company. Most retirees don’t really even know who their children really are. It’s pretty sad.

    • Arka Prabha Basu says:

      I wish you would write a small article about your encounters with these retired, elderly gentlemen. That would be great. If you have written any such article/s, I would be extremely grateful if you could share the link of the article for the same. Thank you.

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