On the night side of life

by Yoko Hani

The last trains have long gone and the stations are shuttered.

Outside, it’s chilly and the streets are all but deserted. In a building in Tokyo’s Shinagawa Ward, though, it’s bright, hot and noisy. About 20 people pump iron, sweat on exercise bikes, and pound the treadmills while the music throbs and sports programs flicker on the wall-mounted televisions. Since it opened two years ago, Gold’s Gym South Tokyo, one of the capital’s first 24-hour sports gyms, has attracted an increasing number of late-night fitness seekers.

“They come from all over Tokyo,” says manager Michiko Mitasaki. “They are working till late and didn’t have anywhere to go to exercise after work. So we decided the logical answer was a 24-hour operation.”

It seems the company has read its market well. Just as the evening customers at this Oimachi gym start thinning out around 11 p.m., a nocturnal influx starts to arrive from jobs in restaurants, publishing, show business and the like. It’s the same story at this U.S.-based gym franchise’s second 24-hour facility in Tokyo, at Harajuku, which opened in March.

“We’ve found there are a lot more people needing such facilities than we expected,” Mitasaki says. “Personally, though, I don’t find that odd, because I myself frequently patronize such [24-hour] shops as Don Quijote in the middle of the night.”

Indeed, for Tokyo’s nocturnal people, stores like Don Quijote, selling a wide range of daily necessities at discount prices and open into the wee hours of the morning, are fast becoming a magnet. As Don Quijote’s own experience illustrates, catering to night-owls pays off — and on Nov. 26, the company opened its second 24-hour mega-shopping complex, located in Toshima Ward’s Kita-Ikebukuro district.

It was convenience stores, when they first appeared in the 1970s, that clearly demonstrated the lucrative potential of late-night retail trading. But these new 24-hour complexes are not just places to rush into at midnight for a carton of milk or rolls of toilet paper. The five-story PAW Kita-Ikebukuro complex, for instance, is designed to be a comprehensive facility for the inhabitants of a sleepless city. In addition to a Don Quijote shop, the complex boasts a game shop, a bookstore, restau rants, a beauty salon, a nail salon and the all-important ATMs.

After-hours retailing is no longer limited to the entertainment districts of the city or its clubbing hotspots. Tokyo’s expanding late-night scene is gradually becoming more diversified — including not only restaurants and supermarkets, but sports facilities, manga-kissa (salons for reading comicbooks), karaoke boxes, golf driving ranges and bowling alleys. It’s almost as if this city never sleeps.

In addition to such factors as globalized business and advanced information technology, this urban wakefulness is exacerbated by the intensifying pressures of a stagnating economy. More people are compelled to work long hours. According to one Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry report, 20 percent of 12,000 workers questioned said they are working after 10 p.m. more than four times a month.

With the exception of the transportation sector, which seems oblivious to the need for 24-hour buses or a skeleton late-night train service, others seem to have cottoned on to the fact that 24-hour business means more business.

“For many businesses, 24-hour operation is a way to tremendously expand their business opportunities,” says Takayuki Suzuki, senior analyst at Primo Research, and a former analyst in Merrill Lynch Japan Securities Co. “The late-night market has long remained untouched while the late-night working population has steadily grown. There is great business potential there if firms gauge customers’ demands correctly.”

Supermarkets’ recent moves to prolong their hours have been conspicuous. About 10 years ago, it was normal for supermarkets to close at 8 p.m. However, 19 of Summit’s 71 stores in Tokyo and neighboring prefectures have now extended their closing time to 1 a.m., while Seiyu has recently moved to keep 81 of its 213 stores open till 11 p.m.

According to the Japan Self-Service Association, which has 210 supermarkets in its membership, the trend was triggered after the regulations of business hours were relaxed in 2000, and in response to the stiff competition from convenience stores.

“The trend for supermarkets is definitely moving toward 24-hour operation,” says association spokesman Takanori Nahara, “and before long it will be nothing special at all.”

This is a self-fulfilling prophesy. With more businesses offering more services at night, the number of customers will grow — fueling more diversified business opportunities for yet more customers to avail themselves of. Thirty years ago, few people needed an all-night gym — perhaps, in a few more years, we may wonder how we managed without all-night garages to fix our cars and motor bikes.

Behind all this, of course, lie changing lifestyles. What’s happening is that “more people are remaining active till later, even at the expense of sleeping hours,” according to Sachiko Nakano of NHK’s Broadcasting Culture Research Institute.

Nakano’s analysis is supported by the findings of the institute’s 2000 lifestyle survey, which demonstrated that over the past 30 years, the time at which people sit down to dinner has been getting later, with the peak having moved from 6:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. The time at which more than 50 percent of people surveyed go to bed was found to have also gotten delayed by 30 minutes, from 10:30 p.m. to 11 p.m.

Tsukasa Sasaki, senior researcher at the Institute for Science of Labor and head of its work stress research team, says that in the past, people in family, company and community units typically shared a similar socio-temporal schedule — such as the time at which they awoke, went to work, ate dinner and got back to bed. But as lifestyles and working routines have diversified, “these frameworks have become weaker,” he says, adding that, “more people have now come to have nocturnal lifestyles.”

Are longer days and shorter nights the inevitable fallout of modern living? Are we evolving to sleep less than we used to?

Not necessarily, Sasaki says. “Human beings have been diurnal for about 100,000 years, and physiologically it is impossible that they can suddenly adapt to nocturnal living due to social changes in the past 10 years or so,” he says. “Also it is very difficult for people to completely switch from day- to night-living for 365 days a year. You have to go back and forth, and that can cause much fatigue.”

That the flesh may be less willing than the spirit to forsake diurnal living was borne out by the recent health ministry survey of late-night workers. This showed that nearly 40 percent of those who worked between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. more than four times a month claimed to be ailing to some degree. In the worst cases, the survey of 12,000 workers in a wide range of businesses found that about 17 percent of the workers reported having been diagnosed with conditions such as stomach problems, high blood pressure and sleep disorders.

As many people’s waking hours get longer and longer, the significance of sleep is coming to be more acutely appreciated than ever before. Irregular sleep patterns that follow on a nocturnal lifestyle could be responsible for sleep disorders, according to Makoto Uchiyama, director of the psychophysiology department of the National Institute of Mental Health.

Uchiyama, who is also the director of the Japan Society of Sleep Research, says it is vital that people realize that it is impossible for them to control their ability to sleep. “We can stay awake by our own volition, but we can’t will ourselves to go to sleep,” he says. “This is because the time we are able to fall asleep is set naturally by our biological clock, in relation to such factors as the first rays of sun we receive in the morning.”

In view of this, Sasaki of the Institute for Science of Labor says that companies should be fully aware of the burden that working irregular hours puts on the health of their staff, and adjust their working conditions accordingly.

Perhaps, to stay fit, some late-night workers need to have some exercise — at a 24-hour gym before going home to sleep. “But ideally,” as even Mitasaki of Gold’s Gym admits, “going to bed and getting some sleep at night would be better for your health . . . “