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Sleeping on the train — a rite of passage into Japanese society

by Amy Chavez

When I first came to Japan, I wondered how people could sleep on the train, a public and completely inappropriate place where you can be assured everyone will be watching you. But then I learned that sleeping on the train is involuntary — and should be classified as a sleeping disorder.

Sleeping disorders encompass anything that interrupts regular sleep such as insomnia or sleep apnea. Sleeping on the train is brought on by long working hours, long commutes. It is exacerbated by heated train seats, the lulling motion of the train and an infectious docile Japanese public demeanor.

Sleepiness itself can be a symptom of myriad illnesses including seasonal affective disorder, anemia or just a rampant, untamable hypothalamus. Then again, you could just be pregnant. Or maybe you’re coming down with a cold or have a new puppy who barks all night. Sometimes when I look around the train, it’s as if a hypnotist is in the midst and has put everyone to sleep.

Some people are so afflicted they fall asleep as soon as they sit down on the train, whereas others have to get sufficiently bored before sleep overtakes them. I’m of the former sort.

Since I have to commute 80 minutes each way to the city (40 minutes on the ferry from my island and then 40 minutes on the train), I am prone to the malady of sleeping on the train. Long ago I decided I would no longer fight it. Instead, I snuggle up with myself and take a 40 minute doze. First, I try to become one with the train — or at least become Thomas the Tank Engine. I work hard at this and am soon nodding off.

When sleep overtakes me on the train, it’s like slipping into the warm waters of a hot spring on a cold day. It feels soooo good. Oh, sleep, how I love you, let me count the ways! As the sleep fairies assemble, they cover me with a big fluffy duvet. Completely enveloped in this warm bubble of bliss, unable to resist the relaxation and satisfaction it promises, I am soon off with the fairies.

Why is this train sleep affliction so satisfying? I can lay awake for hours at night trying to get to sleep, yet the train can lull me to sleep no matter how much I try to resist. Perhaps the satisfaction comes from knowing I’m getting away with doing something I shouldn’t be doing. As if I’m smuggling sleep illegally into the train. First I smuggle it through the train station, where it slips through undetected by the electronic turnstiles, and then I carry it onto the train.

You look around Japan and you see people smuggling sleep everywhere: students in the classroom, young people at the tables of McDonald’s, construction workers under trees, taxi drivers in their cars while waiting for passengers. If smuggling sleep is something we shouldn’t be doing, it is comforting to know that this is the worst crime most Japanese people will ever commit.

Of course, there are perils related to smuggling sleep on the train. You know that person next to you who nods off and his whole body begins to list in your direction? And eventually his head comes to a rest on your shoulder? I am that person. Nice to meet you.

As I go off into that dream state, there is always a tardy fairy who comes rushing in at the last minute with a pillow and a sheet of cloud to lay over the train seat for a little extra comfort. “Thank you,” I tell her as I slowly and gradually lean over to lie down. But I am jolted awake by your darn shoulder in my way! I straighten up in my seat. All the other passengers quickly look away, and I’m led to believe that no one saw me.

I nod off again. This time, it’s the butler who comes in and offers me a night cap. “Yes, please,” I say and just as I put my hand out to receive the hot toddy, again, your darn shoulder is in the way! With a snort, I bolt straight up in my seat and look around. Whew — got away with that one!

Other times I am pleasantly snoozing away, minding my own business, when I suddenly fall into a rabbit hole, and this stumbling action forces me to wake up, startled. This is difficult for the person sitting next to me because they don’t realize I’m being pursued by rabbit holes, which can be very dark and deep. If I get stuck in one of those, I may have to eat carrots for an entire month! If they only knew.

I see sleeping on the train as a rite of passage into Japanese society. Even the staunchest sleep resisters will at some point catch themselves nodding off. You’ll develop this little art to the point where you can nod off comfortably and wake up at your station. That’s when you know you’re an accomplished member of Japanese train society. Remember, even Homer nods.

And if you should some day find my head on your shoulder on the train, please have some sympathy. It’s a sleeping disorder. And at least I don’t drool. I only slobber.

Follow Amy Chavez on Twitter @JapanLite.

  • Steve Smith

    What amazed me even more than people sleeping on the train and subway in Tokyo was the way they would wake just as their train pulled into the station. By the time I left after a 3 month stay to study language in Tokyo I was doing this too and still have no idea how one can do this.

  • Gady

    It isn’t only in Tokyo,go to any city and you will see how Japanese sleep in the chikatesu(tube ,underground ),I never understood at any time of the day..

  • Richard Rabinowitz

    Funny thing is, I’ve dozed off on buses to New York City any one of a number of times, but always been awake before arrival at the Port Authority Bus Terminal. I find it a little harder, but not impossible, to fall asleep on trains. Airplanes are harder than trains to fall asleep on, for some reason.

  • Eric

    In college, my friends and I would sometimes ride 10 hours to Tokyo on local trains using an all day pass. Then we would go to Roppongi until dawn, then in the morning somehow get to the Yamanote line. Then we would sleep a few laps around Tokyo and do it again the next night. I love sleeping on trains.

  • http://www.facebook.com/bshah23 Babar Shah

    very nice article! It is indeed a rite of passage. 電車で寝ちゃうと日本で成れてきたという意味だ。

  • EQ

    What truly fascinates me is how some people are actually able to sleep while standing. Some are quite proficient at it, too. It’s like – they come in the car, the doors close, they assume the position (one hand up holding on the safety handle – the other hand holding whatever they are carrying – they lean their head forward – eyes closed) and they are in “La La Land” in a matter of seconds. They won’t miss their stop, though. Absolutely amazing…

  • Patricia

    It’s not limited to life in Japan. It’s just life in any big city in the world. I’m amazed at how people think this “phenomenon” only happens in one place in the world. SMH

  • Robert

    Let me tell you about the dark side of falling asleep on a train in Japan. Pay attention, especially if you are a girl. I have seen odd men looking for their sleepy victims on several train lines around Tokyo. They would sit right next to them, or in case seats are not available, they just push themselves to be able to stand right in front of them. And then they start enjoying the inappropriate closeness of an otherwise unapproachable young female body.
    When I happen to witness this type of harassment, I tend to ask the guy what he thinks he is doing and/or give him angry looks. He would immediately jump away (surprised by his bad luck of finding a foreigner, given that the fellow Japanese would not dare to say a word), but I usually can see (from the platform) him sneaking back after I leave the train…

    One more thing: Sleeping?! Well, do it at home! I have absolutely no tolerance with colleagues who fall asleep in meetings. I do not (!) think they work hard. I know they are terribly inefficient and unable to organize their time.
    By the way, if you are woken up on a train by an angry foreigner (or his elbow) when you doze off on his shoulder, please say “Hi!”. It’s very likely that person is me.