This afternoon, the guy opposite me fell asleep at his desk. There was nothing subtle about it and trust me, he made no effort whatsoever to hide the fact he was about to have a nap; shutting his computer, tidying his desk and making space for him to rest. Within minutes, he was fast asleep and snoring ever so lightly.
I was the only person in the vicinity who even noticed.
Now many would look at this guy and say “There’s a reason this guy is napping at his desk”. The working culture in Japan is tough. People in Japan work so many hours that there’s actually a word for death from overwork (it’s karōshi ‘過労死’ in case you were curious). When I leave the office, people don’t say “Goodbye” or “See you tomorrow”, they say ‘お疲れ様でした’ literally you must be tired. The idea being that if you’re leaving, you must’ve worked yourself to exhaustion – because otherwise you’d still be working. This in turn impacts sleep patterns; at 7h 43mins per night, Japan’s average sleep levels are the second lowest in the developed world and this drops to 6h 22mins on weekdays. Ouch.
So, it’s hardly surprising that people are tired. And you know what happens when people are really, really tired? Surprise! They fall asleep. It happens so much in Japan that there’s a word for this too: inemuri 居眠り or sleeping while present. Sleeping while present has long been a part of Japanese work culture and contrary to commentary from my Japanese colleagues (“Oh that doesn’t happen anymore”), it’s very much still a thing. It is based on the premise that the worker spends so much time in the office, they’re no longer able to sleep at home – which in most other countries would seem ridiculous but in Japan, I can see how it’s become pretty understandable.
In a move that left the rest of the developed world rather confused, for a very long time the industry standard response in Japan to tackling such widespread exhaustion was to allow, even to encourage, office napping. The reasons given for this were that it would lead to happier, better, more productive workers. Everyone was so convinced this was the way to go that back in 2014, the Japanese government released guidelines strongly recommending that everyone take a 30-minute afternoon nap.
And still – no one was talking about restructuring the workday itself.
It’s sad to say but it wasn’t until the suicide of Matsuri Takahashi on Christmas Day in 2015 that the work environment, namely the culture of overworking at Japanese companies, was truly brought into question. Her social media suggested she’d been getting less than 2 hours sleep a night and early reports showed she’d clocked in more than 100 hours of overtime that month which is just insane. In the face of public outcry, tackling the culture of ‘presentee-ism’ shot up the government’s agenda and they released a whole raft of recommendations (not regulations though mind you) intended to limit the working day. However in a country where working long hours represents loyalty and devotion to the company who employs you (and will mostly likely continue to employ you for the duration of your adult working life), it’s hardly surprising the culture has been hard to shift.
But it is changing.
Prior to arriving in Japan, my local friends had tried to reassure me it really wasn’t as bad as it sounded. In contrast, my friends here in the UK charmingly countered this by Facebook sharing with me every possible karoshi-related article they could find – thanks for that guys!
Even with the reassurances of my Japanese friends in mind, I couldn’t help but think it was all relative and that I’d still be working the insanely long hours I’d read about in blogs and news articles. I mentally prepared myself for longer work hours and less sleep – which for me, as someone who brags about their average on sleep cycle, was a big deal. Interestingly, the reality has been contrary to what I expected; yes, there are significant differences in attitudes related to working (work from home? I think not), I do get the odd email at some absurd hour of the morning and the day is on average longer than I’d be used to at home but at least in my experience, it’s nothing like what I was expecting…
You could counter that the expectations are different for me as a foreigner and I’m happy to agree, I’m sure there’s an element of that. However the reality is that, unless there’s a deadline to meet or work to be done, by 7pm we’re out the door. But shh…. don’t say anything, I think it’s time for my mandated nap!