Med thumb japaneseboysleeping

The scene plays out in every business office: You arrive in the morning, log some productive hours, maybe take a break for lunch, maybe not. Come the afternoon, the white noise of murmuring co-workers, an interminable meeting and computer-induced fatigue all conspire, and you start yawning your head off. Your eyelids droop. You can barely keep your head up…. Zzzzzzzz. You could easily nod off, but jerk yourself awake. You’ve got a couple more hours to put in, so you tell yourself to buck up.

What if you worked someplace where it was totally acceptable to sleep on the job? Where dozing off during a colleague’s presentation wasn’t considered rude but rather a sign that you've been working so hard you just can't stay awake?

For most of us, that sounds like a pipe dream. In Japan, that’s how inemuri works.


Inemuri. According to Dr. Brigitte Steger, senior lecturer in Japanese studies at Downing College Cambridge, the word translates as to “sleep while being present.”

More broadly, inemuri refers to unintentional napping in public — at work, on the train. How others view that snoozing depends on unwritten rules of etiquette; almost always, it’s considered evidence of exhaustion due to a fierce commitment to work, not a sign of slacker indolence. The result of rigorous schedule-keeping in which sleep was sacrificed to complete a job.

This would not go over well in my office.

In most Western countries, napping at your desk or dozing off in a meeting would probably lead to disciplinary action. In Japan, workers get respect for giving their all, i.e., pushing themselves to exhaustion. Showing how tired you are is a statement — “I’m a really hard worker.”

One blog poster confirmed this practice. “I worked (for several years) at a Japanese company and can confirm that inemuri is an everyday occurrence,” he wrote. “The weirdest thing for me was when I had meetings with my boss. He would ask me to explain something or give a presentation — and he would always sleep through it. My only hope was that my boss might notice my good work….or that I might appear in his dreams.”

It’s worth noting at this point that the term inemuri is distinct from hirune, which is a planned nap, or siesta.

Are there any rules I should know about?

According to the above blogger, “You must sit up and look engaged. It must appear as if you could wake up at any moment and do something great.”

Steger confirms that posture matters. Since inemuri is thought to be unintentional, your body position must project the impression that you were trying to work, but couldn’t keep your eyes open, she told The Guardian. “You cannot sleep under the table or anything.”

You should also avoid looking slovenly. 

Can anyone get some of this?

Generally speaking, inemuri is earned with age and responsibility. A more senior-level person at a company will be afforded more leeway if he or she drifts off, according to Steger. It’s been reported that younger, greener employees are expected to be awake and alert — and indeed, excessive inemuri can get you fired.

If you’re thinking to yourself that this one-upmanship sounds like a bunch of swinging dicks, Steger counters with this: “The Japanese are [actually] right in their assessment that you work better after a nap. There is a degree of machismo about it...but it’s better than the macho rituals we have over here, like how late at night did you email your colleagues to prove how long you’ve been working.”

Are there any instances of inemuri abuse?

Funny you should ask. Some especially coy managers may pretend to sleep so they can hear what others are saying when they think they’re speaking freely. In this case, what appears to be inemuri to the unsuspecting workers is actually tanuki neiri — a fake nap.

This deceptive practice is also fairly common during the evening commute. Steger writes that many workers who appear to be in inemuri on their train ride home are actually employing tanuki neiri. They may do this to rest their mind after a brutal workday, or just to avoid gazing at others, which can be seen as rude. She bases her conclusion on the observation that, in most cases, a train-riding passenger who appears to be deep in inemuri will awaken in the nick of time at his or her intended stop.

So far, this sounds like a guy thing.

We were unable to document any women sleeping at their desks, but we did confirm it’s socially acceptable for both men and women to sleep on trains. However, females do fall under more scrutiny for their leg positioning. From a young age, girls are taught to put their knees together when sitting; most do so or cross one leg over the other.

Women, however, tend not to engage in deceptive tanuki neiri practices. Steger writes that, during the 1990s, one enterprising company tried to address the leg situation by making handbags with adjustable supports; when placed in the lap, they could be flipped down to hold the thighs together.

It didn’t take off. Apparently, women who used it would forget they had it on; when they woke up, they often tripped and fell.