17 February 2009

Sleeping in Japan

My friend Karen asked this question, and I thought the answer might be interesting to others, so I'm reposting the answer here.

On Feb 17, 2009, at 1:53 PM, Karen wrote:

Is this true? People sleeping in public like this in Japan? Seems so weird when the idea behind about leaving your shoes at the front door of a house is to keep from tracking in the dirt from the ground outside.

Leo replied:

Well, here in Tokyo the only people sleeping on sidewalks most of the time are the homeless. That said, yes, seeing people asleep is much more normal here than in the west.

The biggest category is sleeping on the train. To understand that, you have to remember that in Tokyo train commutes that take 1.5 to 2 hours each way are considered quite normal. Given that the Japanese also work reasonably long hours (this sure isn't France), where do they get the time? Answer: they sleep less at home. And, when you're only sleeping 4-5 hours a night at home, it's important to use your train time for extra sleep. Everyone here has had the experience of the person sitting next to you on the train falling asleep on your shoulder (certainly, everyone with broad shoulders has had this experience). So, seeing somebody asleep on the train isn't considered noteworthy.

The next biggest category I've seen is sleeping at the office. Of course, some of this is because of the reason above. However, another reason for sleeping at your desk has to do with the Japanese concept of work: a typical Japanese feels compelled to be at work for about the same amount of time everyone else at work is at work. My friend Beth came up with the perfect phrase for this: in a Japanese company, it's not about how much you get done; it's about how much you are seen to be working.

Because of that, there will be times when a Japanese person feels compelled to stay at work, even though they're so tired they realize they're not going to get anything done. And thus, sleeping at their desk is a rational response. It's very widespread here: the first time I ever visited an Anime studio, I came into a room of about 20 desks, and three people were full hard asleep with their heads plopped down on their drawing table. "Oh wow," I said, "you must have just had a big deadline."

"No," my host replied, "it's actually a pretty light week, why do you ask?"

In terms of the pictures on that blog page above, the traffic monitor asleep on his scooter, or the couple asleep on the bench in the park are just extensions of sleeping at one's desk. Of course, the other big difference in Japan is that there's basically no crime, so you can fall asleep in public without worrying your wallet will be gone when you wake up. The people asleep on benches are probably catching a few lunchtime ZZZs.

Last but not least, and most relevant to the people asleep on the ground, Japan has an incredible tolerance for public drunkenness. The first time I ever visited Japan, I got to my hotel about 11pm and decided to take a walk. Unbeknownst to me, the street I was walking down led towards one of the major train stations where people need to catch the last train of the day (for their two-hour commute home). The street was filled with drunken Japanese businessmen staggering towards the station. There was a group of three where the middle guy was being literally carried by his buddies on either side. I saw several people casually taking a leak at the side of the road, and evidence of numerous people getting sick as well. And it was a weekday night!

If people are in that condition and not in the company of friends, they may well find themselves asleep on a piece of sidewalk somewhere (the guy asleep with his briefcase at the bottom of the stairs is a classic). While that blog would make you think it's extremely common, I find that while it's not unusual to see drunk people asleep on the sidewalk, it's not an every-night kind of thing (unlike sleeping on the train, which is very normal). Perhaps in southern Japan where the climate is milder things are different?

Anyway, yes, in general I see people out in the world asleep here more often than I did in America! Probably a longer answer than Karen wanted...