Together with the homeless in Shinjuku Station and the inhumanly congested trains, also in Shinjuku Station, images of the Japanese sleeping in the trains are perhaps the most characteristic of modern Japan and are used excessively, mostly by decriers of Japan’s culture to illustrate the, not always pleasant conditions of life in Asia’s most developed country. And even though my standard position against stereotypes is that of reservation, I would be lying if I said that I too haven’t been concerned by this phenomenon: it is so extensive and so much beyond any discrimination in sexes, ages, social class or times that it is hard to just attribute it to a habit. In other words, even before I did some research I had almost reached the conclusion that the people in Japan suffer from sleep deprivation.
A few months after I came here, I happened across the scientific explanation, coming from an international organization called “World Sleep Federation” which those days held its 6th international congress in Kyoto (incidentally the head of the organization is also Japanese, at least by ancestry): the Japanese, and especially the Tokyoites do indeed sleep less than the people of any other developed country. More specifically, they sleep in average 6 hours/day, that is, 14% than what sleep specialists recommend; the study also mentioned that they sleep 36 minutes less than the people in New York and 54 minutes less than the people in Paris. If we add to the above the fact that the average Tokyoite spends one hour of their life in the train every day, it’s not surprising that they use this hour to make up for the sleep they are lacking.
Sleep specialist limit their research to what is happening –assumptions and the conclusions on “why” fall on the shoulders of sociologists and anthropologists, scientists and amateurs. Speaking from the position of the latter, I would say that the reason is obvious and it is, once again, the way Japanese society is organized: it burdens its members with much more obligations than most other contemporary societies with the result that most people cut down on the only time they have for themselves, that of sleep. If we also take into account the, Confucian in origin, self-denial from which these obligations stem from and lead to, it is unavoidable that most people would defy the, irrefutably harmful consequences sleep deprivation has –those who consider it a small price to pay for “being Japanese” should remember that it is one of the most effective methods of torture.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes in the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.