In most countries, sleeping on the job isn’t just frowned upon, it may get you fired. But in Japan, napping in the office is common and culturally accepted. And 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.” It is often translated as “sleeping on duty,” but Brigitte Steger, a senior lecturer in Japanese studies at Downing College, Cambridge, who has written a book on the topic, says it would be more accurate to render it as “sleeping while present.”
That, she said, captures Japan’s approach to time, where it’s seen as possible to do multiple things simultaneously, if at a lower intensity. So you can get credit for attending that boring quarterly sales meeting while also dreaming of a beach vacation. Inemuri is most prevalent among more senior employees in white-collar professions, Dr. Steger said. 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 criticized for it, especially if they sleep in a position that is considered unbecoming, Dr. Steger said. Inemuri has been practiced in Japan for at least 1,000 years, and it is not restricted to the workplace. People may nap in department stores, cafes, restaurants or even a snug spot on a busy city sidewalk.
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Sleeping in public is especially prevalent on commuter trains, no matter how crowded; they often turn 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 Theodore C. Bestor, a professor of social anthropology at Harvard University.