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Keeping one eye open on Japan's attempts to sleep

by Michael Hoffman

Contributing Writer

Sleep.

Those to whom it comes effortlessly can’t imagine the yearning it inspires. The more you yearn for it, the further it recedes. The further it recedes, the more you yearn for it. It becomes everything in life. All other goals pale beside it. Oh, for a few hours’ sleep!

Japan is a sleep-deprived superpower. Statistics compiled by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development show Japanese people sleeping on average 442 minutes a night — as against 528 minutes in the United States, 542 in China, 513 in France and 508 in Britain. One Japanese in 5 sleeps badly, says the health ministry — 1 in 3 among those 60 and older.

Why is sleep so elusive? Why should so natural a function be so hard to achieve? Don’t we work hard enough? Trains full of dozing rush-hour commuters traveling to and from their notoriously long working hours answer that question plainly enough. Maybe we work too hard? Exhaustion beyond a certain point — mental exhaustion in particular; white-collar exhaustion — turns sleep against us. Sleep (as opposed to dozing, which is not the real thing) needs to be coaxed — almost prayed for. Sleep’s bed needs careful, almost ritual tending. The stressed, the overworked and the depressed are too stressed, overworked and depressed for that. Their invitation to sleep tends to be crude. Sleep recoils.

In a mook titled “Overcoming Sleep Disorders” (February 2020), sleep therapist Osami Kajimoto teaches us how to woo sleep. Begin, he says, by giving it its very considerable due.

Imagine: We spend (or should) one-third of our lives — 27 years of an 80-year life span — asleep, “dead to the world,” as is the saying. What a waste. We could be working, playing, learning — in a word, living. True — but physiology brooks no defiance. A sleep-deprived rat dies within 20 days, Kajimoto says. An adolescent human sleepless for 11 days will suffer potentially permanent blurred vision and memory loss.

Society, regardless, claims from us its pound of flesh. Overwork and stress are as endemic to modern life as they are destructive to mental and physical health. If they don’t keep us awake they send us into the wrong kind of sleep, poor quality sleep — shallow when it should be deep, deep when it should be shallow — that tires rather than restores.

Ideally, we should sleep at dusk and rise with the sun. The photo in the mook illustrating that point is of a lion. Humans, too, are diurnal animals. At least nature intended us to be — but natural life is far from us now, incompatible with the demands society makes on us (and the demands we make on it: 24-hour-a-day information, entertainment, shopping, lights, action). The alarm clock rouses us without considering the state we’re in. Waking to a loud noise raises the heart rate and blood pressure. High heart rate and blood pressure, among other menacing health consequences, corrode sleep quality.

Every plant and animal sleeps. Why can’t humans, so much more intelligent than even the wisest of beasts, manage to do what every house fly and dung beetle does without a thought? Because nature takes care of them as it long ago ceased to take care of us. That’s why we need sleep therapy, and therapists such as Kajimoto.

As he shows us, it’s a vastly complex subject. Everybody knows about stress and depression, and we’re not surprised when he invokes them, but the nuances and subtleties he unfolds are beguiling. Sleep confers vast benefits on its votaries, but demands much in return. Is your sleep environment acceptable to it — is your pillow the right height, your mattress the right texture, the bedroom lighting neither too bright nor too dim? What about your daily routine? Should you be eating more or less of this or that? Do you get enough exercise? Breathe properly? Bathe at the right time, in water of the right temperature?

Do you snore? It’s a bad sign if you do; it means air isn’t circulating properly, and though you may be sleeping, you’re not sleeping well — it’s one reason why people awake unrefreshed. Fortunately there are remedies. One is a set of tongue exercises, short, intense bursts of tongue-wagging — thrust it out, draw it in, shake it to the left, shake it to the right. It looks ridiculous. Do it in front of a mirror and you’ll laugh at yourself. Laughter, too, is therapeutic.

Kajimoto’s message is ultimately optimistic — good sleep is achievable — but you sometimes wonder, reading him, whether the dice aren’t stacked against us after all. You’d almost have to drop out of society altogether, it seems, to negotiate the delicate web of rules that offer sleep an environment it will accept. Working people have bosses to satisfy, children to educate, bills to pay. For anyone eager to get ahead, or fearful of losing ground, sleep cannot be a priority — can it?

You can take that attitude if you choose. Sleep doesn’t care. Slight it and watch it fade. Plead your obligations, responsibilities and the inescapable distractions of modern life, and it ignores you — it has forgotten you already; you don’t exist, as far as it’s concerned. The consequences can be devastating, Kajimoto warns. They stretch far beyond the burning eyes, sluggish brain and oppressed soul that every insomniac knows so well, to physical disease. Sleep disorders are believed to foster, if not actually cause, almost every illness known to us, from the common cold to heart disease, allergies to diabetes, digestive trouble to cancer.

Sleep has a sense of humor. It mocks us. There are those who say — and every sleep-deprived semi-zombie knows at least one who does — “I can sleep anywhere, anytime; no sooner does my head touch the pillow than I’m out like a light.” Their situation is as enviable as their boasting is infuriating — or perhaps not. It’s bad, Kajimoto warns. To fall asleep too quickly is to fall into the wrong kind of sleep.

You don’t notice it at first, but there’s a thing called a “sleep debt,” which builds and builds over time, finally felling you with an exhaustion you can’t account for. Then you pay the price for those easy restful years. Japan’s sleep debt, in economic terms, is said to total ¥15 trillion. Good night all.

Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues being discussed by domestic media organizations. Michael Hoffman’s latest book is an essay collection titled “Fuji, Sinai, Olympos.”