Sleepless in Tokyo

If you ever wonder why Tokyoites are always sleeping on the train, a report at the 6th World Congress of the World Sleep Federation explains why: They’re not sleeping enough at home.

Tokyo workers average 36 minutes less sleep every night than New Yorkers and 54 minutes less than Parisians, according to research presented at the Congress in Kyoto this month. Tokyo, it turns out, has the biggest sleep deprived population in the world.

The average sleep time for Tokyo workers was six hours, nearly 14 percent below the recommended amount. Only 23 percent of Japanese were found to get more than 7 hours, with most workers going to bed just past midnight. The habit of skimping on sleep starts early in Japan. One study found Japanese middle school students averaged just 6.9 hours of sleep per night, far below the nine hours experts recommend. Apparently, Japanese are sleep deprived most of their lives.

While sleep experts note that needed sleep time can vary widely from person to person, the health effects of missing sleep are serious. For students, lack of sleep makes it hard to concentrate, interfering with learning. Numerous of the federation’s studies have found that staying up late to study and suffering from lack of sleep hurts exam scores. Insufficient sleep also affects mood and behavior, contributing to depressive feelings and irritability, especially in teenagers.

Researchers found that once the biological clock becomes irregular, a vicious cycle of stress, sleeplessness and more stress sets in and becomes hard to break. Poor sleep lowers resistance to illnesses and contributes to anxiety and depression. Some studies found that disrupting sleep patterns contributes to cardiovascular disease. Being drowsy is a key factor in traffic accidents and workplace injuries.

The implications of these studies are straightforward. Learning how to sleep is a skill people need to acquire when young. Sleep should be made a serious priority, not just catch-as-catch-can. Teachers at high schools and cram schools should educate students in the importance of getting enough sleep on a regular schedule. Students, as well as workers, should stop stressful activities in time to relax before trying to go to sleep. Workers need to avoid excessive overtime and reduce the stress from work with relaxing activities before going to bed. Sufficient sleep enhances not only efficiency in daily activities, but also the capacity to take pleasure in those activities. Sleep deprivation is a chronic, endemic problem whose best cure is, quite simply, sleep.