Sleep and Rest

Sleeping: where, when, how much?

Many foreigners in Japan are surprised and even shocked about the Japanese attitude to sleep and rest. In everyday life in Japan, people are seen to sleep during the daytime, in public, and sometimes in situations deemed appropriate with sleep in other parts of the world (e.g. at work, in the classroom).  

In many Western countries, people are taught from early childhood that getting enough sleep during the night is important for a healthy and balanced lifestyle. For example, both of the authors of this textbook had early bedtimes of around 7:30 when they were young. They still find it baffling when they see small kids on the train late at night, or when children in their families-in-law are allowed to stay up past midnight during family gatherings. These differences are the topic of Comprehension 2 on  page 18. This gives students a practical angle on different values and attitudes. Another crucial aspect of sleeping habits is co-sleeping- do children sleep in the same bed as their parents, and until what age? This topic is lightly touched on here (since co-sleeping affects the quality of sleep), but explored in greater depth in Unit 9: Parents and Children (in regards to the effect it has on parent-child relationships).

Shockingly tired

The Culture Shock section (p.19) shows two examples of what happens when these two cultural patterns clash. Japanese respondent Takako relates the shock and anger of her teachers in Belgium when she was discovered to be falling asleep in class. For her, sleeping in class happened because she “often stayed late studying”- that is, it was a result of her hard work. Perhaps she thought that she was showing goodwill or even respect to her teachers, first by studying hard until late at night, and then by dragging herself to class even though she was very tired. A little dozing off could be understood and accepted, couldn’t it? Well, her teacher didn’t think so: he/she probably thought that the only way to study well, to take full advantage of a class, was to be fresh and rested after a good night’s sleep: “If you are coming here to sleep, you might as well stay at home”.

Give your all, or manage your energy

This points to a fundamental difference regarding what is considered the “best” way to participate in collective efforts. As the German respondent Jürgen notes on page 19, for him the best way to deal with a big day (and probably with the challenges of every day at the office) is to be “sharp”, that is, to have gotten a good night’s sleep. This leads him to leave the office early in order to be able to first relax and then get enough sleep. He sees this as a condition for being productive, especially before an important work day. But as he remarks, his Japanese colleagues probably feel shocked by his behavior, perhaps construing it as egoistic. Jürgen exemplifies Cultural Pattern B in the One Step Further section (p.76): “Manage your energy.” Based on his response, his Japanese colleagues probably fall more into Cultural Pattern A: “Give your all.” There is a famous (yet not untrue) stereotype of Japanese culture: stay at work until you literally drop. It is considered noble to be working to the point of exhaustion. 

We can see that attitudes toward sleep and rest have deep implications on what is considered the “right” way to participate in study, work, and society in general. It has been noted that productivity in Japanese companies is actually quite low overall, but these companies produce decent results simply because their workers work long hours. In many Western countries, this system would be thought of as ridiculous. In these cultures, it is considered better for health (and therefore for work) to be productive and have a relaxed and fulfilling personal life,  and this requires a decent  amount of recreation and sleep. 

Respect my sleep!

In the One Step Further section, two French respondents (no.7 and no.9) state quite bluntly that “Japanese people do not have respect for the sleep of others.” They themselves have been conditioned to sleep in strict conditions: alone in their room, in dim or darkened surroundings and in silence. Japanese people, who have been accustomed to sleep in the presence of other people (first of all, their family members during childhood) in lighted and surrounding noise (for example in a living room where the TV is often on, and lights are often bright), do not understand such Westerners’ sensitivity and their insistence that “their sleep should be respected.” 

This is a very basic and everyday topic, yet since sleep is so vital to one’s health and lifestyle, it is an important one to consider anytime people from different cultures live together.  

References and further reading