Even a fleeting amount of time spent ‘in country’ should be enough to reveal that our Japanese hosts have an astonishing ability to sleep where they can be stationary for a minute or two. This might be stood on a packed train, swaying and shaking to the movement of the carriage, or even on some patch of cold and unforgiving street side concrete. (It shouldn’t be so alarming to see a ‘salaryman’ reclined, say, on a less than discrete ledge.) At home, the passer by might be concerned enough to check for signs of life. Here, sleeping salaryman will at best command a cursory glance. Sleeping on the trains can perhaps be put down to a Spartan session at the office rather than some kind of conscientious power nap. While the same may also be said about the doing so on the street, one is tempted to speculate that alcohol was involved to some degree, although the daylight hour can be a cause for concern.
A recent tweet jumped out revealing a great deal about the culture of sleep in Japan. At least the outsider’s interpretation of it. Composer of said tweet was remarking that a colleague (a fellow expat) had sufficiently assimilated to working life in Japan such that they felt it acceptable to fall asleep at the office. Now, thoughts of Japan’s workforce getting some shut eye while they’re on duty might be hard to conjure. If we think we know anything about the Japanese before spending any time here, it’s that they have an extraordinary capacity for work. This is hard to question if we take the indicator of work capacity as being time spent at the office, so it comes as a surprise to read about a culture of sleep that has found its way out of the bedroom and onto the desk.
Perhaps we can see examples of this culture in Japan’s public school system, where expats working as assistant language teachers (ALTs) might be surprised by the remarkable tolerance shown towards students who sleep during class. Initially, these students might receive an exasperated scolding from the teacher who would eventually be resigned to this being their want and would take no further action. There seemed to be two forms of reasoning here; one was that the students had been studying into the small hours at home, had probably attended sports club in the morning, and were now a spent force. The other, that these students simple weren't meant for the world of academia.
Sleep wasn’t the exclusive remit of the students. In the teachers' room it was common to see members of staff taking naps at their desks. The frisson of excitement one gets at the prospect confrontation soon dissipated after it became clear that these naps were tolerated, not even remarked upon. In fact displays of sleep seemed to part of an arsenal of quiet appeals from some teachers to bosses and institution as a whole as to how hard they had been working, similar to a student trying to impress a teacher by going overboard with their homework or making a show of their diligence with a loaded question. Back home this sort of behaviour is a great way to not make friends in the workplace, and sleeping at one's desk would just appear as laziness.
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