Japanese Shame of Sleeping: How Asian Cultural Shame leads to Workaholism and Sleep-Deprivation.

Asian Shame, Counseling & Coaching, Uncategorized0 comments

In many Asian cultures, work is equated with one’s worth.  Work is perceived with reverence and cultural honor even if it supersedes your mental or physical health.  For the Japanese, extolling work is evident as the country ranks as the most sleep-deprived nation of the world getting just more than 6 hours of rest a night.

The average person in Japan sleeps just 6 hours and 15 minutes at night, an hour less than in the U.S. and Switzerland, according to a recent Wall Street Journal article.  This puts Japan at the bottom of its list of developed countries.

“Working long hours without a break and everyone working together until the end of the day, this is traditionally how Japan has done things,” says Reina Hyakuya, a manager at Nextbeat Co., a Tokyo recruitment-consulting firm.

But progressive companies in Japan are trying to change this tradition and offer napping rooms where workers are encouraged to take naps of up to an hour to recharge themselves.

Nextbeat, an IT service provider, went as far as setting up two “strategic sleeping rooms” – one for men, the other for women – at its headquarters in Tokyo. The aroma-infused rooms feature devices that block out background noise, allowing workers to stretch out on sofas for an undisturbed nap. Mobile phones, tablets and laptops are banned.

Some companies even offer financial incentives to persuade its employees to shun overtime and get to bed at a reasonable hour. Crazy, a wedding planning company, awards employees who sleep at least six hours a night with points that can then be exchanged for food in the company cafeteria. Using an app to monitor their sleep, workers can accumulate points worth as much as 64,000 yen (£458) a year.

But this cultural shift is met with scorn and contempt as the Japanese find it shameful to take pre-meditated naps even if companies encouraged it.  What is honorable is nodding off at your desk

Brigitte Steger, a University of Cambridge lecturer who has studied Japanese sleeping habits, distinguishes between a nap and what Japanese call inemuri, or roughly “nodding off.” The Japanese characters for the word more literally translate as “sleeping while present.” 

“Inemuri is very different” from a nap, says Dr. Steger. “It’s not taking off your shoes and withdrawing, it’s actually, ‘I am actually at work.’ You are still officially working even if you drop off.”

Dr. Seiji Nishino, who runs Stanford University’s Center for Sleep Sciences and Medicine, says Americans tend to view the outcome of their work as important, whereas Japanese are more focused on the process, including “how they are seen working hard.” 

Being seen in a designated nap room would be viewed as dishonoring, shameful, and culturally unacceptable.  Europeans working in Japan have also noticed the cultural stigma themselves.  

Louis Lapouille moved to Japan a year ago from France and sometimes heads with French co-workers at his Tokyo import-company employer to conference rooms for a 20-minute siesta. He endures suspicious glances from Japanese colleagues, he says. “You can feel some of the people on the Japanese side are judging us.”

Japanese colleagues “leave later, work harder and don’t nap,” Mr. Lapouille says. 

While this issue sounds like one of just getting more rest, there are dire consequences in East Asian countries where work and workaholism has led to deaths from overworking.  In Japan, it’s known as karoshi.  In China, it’s called guolaosi while in South Korea the term is gwarosa which are all similar in culturally defining those who die from overworking either due to heart attacks, strokes, or stress and/or starvation diets.

The RAND Corporation cites that individuals who sleep fewer than six hours a night on average have a 13 per cent higher mortality risk than people who sleep at least seven hours.

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