Caught napping in public: It can be a sign of diligence

Sleeping in public, known as inemuri in Japan, is especially prevalent on Japanese commuter trains, no matter how crowded; in fact, they are often turned into de facto bedrooms. It helps that Japan has a very low crime rate. One reason public sleepin
Sleeping in public, known as inemuri in Japan, is especially prevalent on Japanese commuter trains, no matter how crowded; in fact, they are often turned into de facto bedrooms. It helps that Japan has a very low crime rate. One reason public sleeping is common in Japan might be that people get so little sleep at home.PHOTO: NYTIMES

In Japan, it could mean you must be working yourself to exhaustion

In most countries, sleeping on the job is not just frowned upon, it could get you fired. But in Japan, napping in the office is common, and a culturally accepted norm.

In fact, it is often seen as a subtle sign of diligence - you must be working yourself to exhaustion.

The word for it is inemuri. This is often translated as "sleeping on duty", but Dr Brigitte Steger - a senior lecturer in Japanese studies at Downing College, Cambridge, who has written a book on the topic - said it would be more accurately rendered as "sleeping while present".

That, she said, captures Japan's approach to time, where it is considered possible to do multiple things simultaneously, even if it is at a lower intensity. So, you can get credit for attending a boring meeting while also dreaming of a beach vacation.

Inemuri is most prevalent among more senior employees in white-collar professions, said Dr Steger. Junior employees tend to want to stay awake all day and be seen as energetic, and workers on assembly lines can't just nod off.

Both sexes indulge in inemuri, but women are more likely to be criticised for it, especially if they sleep in a position that is considered unbecoming, said Dr Steger.

Inemuri has been practised in Japan for at least 1,000 years, and it is not restricted to the workplace. People might nap in department stores, cafes, restaurants or even a snug spot on a busy city sidewalk.

Sleeping in public is especially prevalent on commuter trains, no matter how crowded; they are often turned into de facto bedrooms. It helps that Japan has a very low crime rate.

"It's very unlikely, if you are sleeping on a train, that someone would try to rob you," said Dr Theodore Bestor, a professor of social anthropology at Harvard University.

Sleeping in social situations can even enhance your reputation. Dr Steger recalled a group dinner at a restaurant where the male guest of a female colleague fell asleep at the table. The other guests complimented his "gentlemanly behaviour" - that he chose to stay present and sleep, rather than excuse himself.

One reason public sleeping is common in Japan might be that people get so little sleep at home. A 2015 government study found that 39.5 per cent of Japanese adults slept less than six hours a night.

An unwritten rule of inemuri is to sleep compactly, without "violating spatial norms", Dr Bestor said.

"If you stretched out under the table in the office conference room, or took up several spaces on the train, or laid out on a park bench", he said, that would draw reproach for being socially disruptive.

Dr Steger said closed eyes might not always equal shut-eye: A person might close them just to build a sphere of privacy in a society with little of it.

That is partly why Dr Steger said she could imagine inemuri waning in Japan. These days, smartphones can transport people to their own private zones, even with their eyes wide open.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 22, 2017, with the headline 'Caught napping in public: It can be a sign of diligence'. Print Edition | Subscribe