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.