Sleeping in weird places may just be the Japanese secret to everything

Jun 24, 2016 at 8:30 a.m. ET
Image: Staffan.scherz/Visual Hunt

Inemuri is Japanese for "sleeping at work." Although Westerners may frown on that (seriously, just try it with your boss), in Japan it is not only condoned, but it is also a survival technique — and one we may want to learn, too.

The internet is rife with snaps of exhausted Japanese men and women sleeping in strange places and positions. There are pictures of people snoozing standing up in the subway, sprawled out on a public staircase, at a table in a restaurant or just flat out on the sidewalk. These people seem to just collapse into somnolence whenever and wherever the urge strikes. No, they're not a nation of narcoleptics — nor are they homeless, drunk or on drugs. It's a practice called inemuri, a way of napping throughout the day to allow people to catch up on their sleep and still keep up with a fast-paced world.

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And nowhere does life move more at warp speed than in Japan. The average workweek is 50 hours, but people often do far more than that with younger workers saying they're expected to put in 18 to 20 hours a day. And even though most Japanese get 15 paid days of vacation per year, most take just seven. Their work culture is so all-consuming that karoshi, literally "death by work," is a legally recognized cause of death. And before you laugh, know that Americans aren't much better. One-quarter of us get no paid leave at all, and of those of us who do, 50 percent don't use all of it. So it makes sense that the average adult, both in Japan and here, would need to sneak in a little shut-eye whenever possible.

But sleeping on a crowded train? On a public staircase? Doesn't that feel, well, weird? Not at all, says Brigitte Steger, a researcher who's spent years investigating inemuri and recently wrote about it for the BBC. The Japanese have two cultural advantages that make passing out in public OK. First, it's seen not so much as napping but more like daydreaming... with your eyes closed. And people are totally fine to daydream in public, right? Second, their culture praises effort above all else, Steger notes. Unlike in the U.S., sleeping during a work meeting is seen as a mark of diligence and commitment — you're there even though you're so exhausted you could sleep standing up, literally. So in a way, sleeping at work may be seen as a subtle sign of how hard you are working and how much you're giving to the company.

"We Japanese have the Olympic spirit," one napper told Steger. "Participating is what counts."

It helps that the Japanese have no stigma about sleeping in front of other people. Westerners usually see sleeping as a solitary activity, reserved for the privacy of the bedroom. But in Japan, co-sleeping with family members is common, and many Japanese adults say they sleep better in the presence of other people, even if they're strangers.

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"The Japanese habit of inemuri does not necessarily reveal a tendency toward laziness," Steger writes. "Instead, it is an informal feature of Japanese social life intended to ensure the performance of regular duties by offering a way of being temporarily ‘away’ within these duties."

In other words, it's a way to take a rejuvenating mini-break during the day without being a slacker.

Although we all giggle at images of rows of conked-out commuters, they may be getting the last laugh. Research on inemuri is scarce, but there is some evidence that it provides an advantage over the rest of the sleep-deprived world. Some sleep, no matter how you get it, is better than no sleep. After all, what do you have to lose other than your pride?