All We Do Here is Sleep, Work, and Eat

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Maybe it’s my age or my gender or my nationality or my political leanings or some deeply-repressed kindergarten memory, but I’m a fundamentally cynical person. And here again, I find myself deeply intrigued by Momus‘s ability to project notions of Zen Buddhist calm and anti-consumerist progressivism onto the contemporary Japanese love of sleep. I can’t help but think there may be other forces in the world that explain the national penchant for constant dozing other than vague implications of “free choice” or “cultural determinism.”

Japanese culture is openly pro-sleep the same way it is openly pro-sex, and the existence of all that sloth and lust porn neatly coincides with the fact that Japan is absolutely the least sexed and least rested of all post-Industrial nations. You always want what you can’t have.

But the Japanese obsession with sleeping and eating concerns more than satiating physiological needs: If daily life constantly unfolds in the same mechanical loop of sleeping, commuting, working, commuting, and sleeping, the only moments an individual can truly grasp “alone time” are during meals and naps. At least in the traditional system, work and school involve a total dedication of self to a specific position in a strict hierarchy. Forget “fun” as escape: the constant after-work tsukiai routines undermine the idea of “hitting the town” as a self-driven off-the-clock activity. Sleeping thus becomes a perfect zone to express individualism, where the self can finally disengage from society without the need to make excuses for a lower level of dedication to the organization.

At least in America, time after work is “me time” if not “Miller Time,” and there are enough hours to self-medicate and bask in the (possibly false) sense of freedom before going back to the office to resume cog duty the following morning. Anyone who’s ever worked at a traditional Japanese office — with the milling around for two hours post-“closing time” and the endless drinking with boring old managers and getting home on the last train only to get up the next day and do the same thing again — will know that sleep is the only chance to get the world off your back.

The Journal of Unindustriousness ku:nel is not targeted to people who are engaged in these ego-restraining corporate jobs, but written for younger (female) people with a lot of time on their hands. The same general principle holds though: When society’s eye is watching your every move, sleep may be the only escape.

W. David MARX (Marxy)
January 8, 2006

Marxy wrote a lot of essays back on his old site Néomarxisme. This is one of them.

32 Responses

  1. r, Says:

    bravo!

  2. x Says:

    While I was tempted to post something similar in Momus’s blog (Japan sleeps less than anywhere else) – it’s beyond apparent that Momus just posts hyper-idealistic, misinterpreted Japanese propaganda to advertise his sense of exoticness, and maintenance his small cult of personality.

    And he knows, like all clever, image-oriented individuals – any press is good press – so he feeds the fanboys with fairytales, and baits the knowledgeable into childish arguments, with the same drivel.

    The only consolation is that Momus has pretty much outlived his potential for real prominence, and will probably remain an internet, pseudo-intellectual-side-show for the foreseeable future (ironically, having damned himself during his career with the very same contrived, image-focused thrusts for fame, to only alienate himself both critically and commercially).

    It’s unfortunate; with more discipline, he might have made an exceptional English Professor, at a reputable university (and be ten years away from retiring with financial security).

    C’est la vie.

  3. Momus Says:

    Well, who’da thunk you could even tie so innocent an activity as sleeping into “Japanese original sin”? But you’ve done it, and as usual your analysis shares something with mine: a focus on Japanese particularism. As usual, though, what it boils down to is that I’m the nice nihonjinron saying the glass is half full and you’re the nasty nihonjinron saying it’s half empty. I say “Japanese sleep differently”, you say “Japan is absolutely the least sexed and least rested of all post-Industrial nations.” Japanese, you say, are obsessed with sleep because

    a) they don’t get enough and
    b) when they do sleep, they get to be individuals, which they don’t otherwise

    I’m inclined to say you have something with a, except that it gets a bit tangled, because you’re basically saying “they sleep so much because they don’t get enough sleep”, which is clearly a paradox. We might untangle the foolishness of that a bit by specifying “they sleep so much in public because they don’t get enough sleep in private”. But then you’d have to say there’s something collectivist about Japanese sleep, and you don’t want to say that, you want to argue that sleep is “me time”, because you’re keen on the proposition that individualism is better than collectivism, and that given half the chance Japanese would choose to be individualists. (You might also have to concede that it’s a lot easier to sleep in public in Japan than in high crime societies like the US, where public space is dangerous and run down. In other words, you might have to edge towards the nice nihonjinron position, and even — shudder! — perhaps think about deconstructing Western holies like the meaning of individualism. Well, to be fair you do tiptoe in that direction with “At least in America… “me time”… false sense of freedom before… cog duty”.)

    As usual, your analysis abounds in wild, unproven assertions. Japan is the least sexed of all post-Industrial nations? Really? Any proof of that? I suppose, by the logic of your position on sleep, the proof is that signs of sex are everywhere in Japan, from love hotels to combini porn to an AV industry the size of many small nations. They’re obsessed with it, so they must lack it, right? And, by the logic of your position on sleep, masturbation, too, is valuable “me time” for a society in the iron grip of collectivism. Okay, seems fair enough. How about the prevalence of “food porn” on Japanese TV? A sign that the Japanese eat worse than anyone else, right? And since “an individual can truly grasp ‘alone time’ during meals and naps” (do Japanese people eat alone? And sleep alone?), all those TV food shows have a secret theme: ways “the self can finally disengage from society”. They’re about how the Japanese self can disengage from Japan. Unless, of course, the Japanese self has collectivist Japan (rather than, say, individualist America) printed all the way through, like the letters in a stick of rock. In which case, the Japanese might be Japanese even when they’re sleeping, eating and masturbating alone.

    (Thanks for the faculty recommendation, x!)

  4. hans Gullickson Says:

    wonderful. You too are still at it. I’ve been checking up on tis site from time to time.
    What is the hook that keeps you to engaged with each other, and with these unanswerable japanese riddles? I enjoy the banter. And both of you are inteligent. well spoken, good sense of humor… etc.

    false sense of freedom? well my dear friend. life is not all roses. But, America still does have a rather free society. I know I know. But still, it could be alot worse.
    And I think japan is doing quite well also.
    p.s. I love all these themes. food, sex, foodsex, sleeping. I love it all. I love the extreme attention for these possibly mundane subjects.

  5. alin Says:

    interesting, of the three entries since marxy’s return the two more substantial ones have momus in the first paragraph.

  6. Boyland Says:

    David, dear, I’m afraid you have once again recognized the symptom and overintellectualized the diagnosis. That the fairly prosperous and bourgeois nation of Japan spend so much money and energy towards sleep, food, and the making of love is because a horrible space monster named RoboMaslow fired a ray at them from his satellite base (in geosynchronous orbit over Yamagata Prefecture) that inverted the standard hierarchy of needs. Need hierarchy inversion ray = broad national striving towards sleeping. It is now only the poorest 15% of Japanese people (sadly, mostly dekasegi) who cannot afford complete spiritual enlightenment, however, the bottom half of the Japanese economy sleeps an average of 2.8 hours a night.

    Can RoboMaslow be stopped? Yes, with a fleet of robotic space octopuses.

  7. alin Says:

    how can this ‘they’ and subsequent grotesque generalisations be avoided. ok, it’s not like people are the same wherever you go but we do share the same biology regardless of ideology.

  8. Momus Says:

    of the three entries since marxy’s return the two more substantial ones have momus in the first paragraph.

    I’m totally setting the intellectual agenda of this place at the moment, which is boring even for me. I knew 2006 wasn’t going to be a vintage Marxy year when he sprang back into the ring hollering a reference to a Backstreet Boys song.

  9. marxy Says:

    I knew 2006 wasn’t going to be a vintage Marxy year when he sprang back into the ring hollering a reference to a Backstreet Boys song.

    You’re getting it backwards. I’m so overconfident that I know I can drop a Backstreet Boys reference and get away with it. My hubris will be punished in the future.

    But yes, I’ve been away from this blog for almost 2 months now, and I’m having trouble getting started again.

    Can RoboMaslow be stopped? Yes, with a fleet of robotic space octopuses.

    Japan is also obsessed with tentacle rape because it’s the least tentacle-raped society in the world.

    How about the prevalence of “food porn” on Japanese TV? A sign that the Japanese eat worse than anyone else, right?

    Japan does have the lowest daily average caloric intake among all the post-industrial nations. Around 2000 compared to 3000 for US and Europe. I get a sense that this is changing, however, which is why teenagers now tower over their grandparents by a foot or more.

    Japan is the least sexed of all post-Industrial nations? Really? Any proof of that?

    Whether you believe that Durex survey or not, there does not seem to me be much in the way of data that suggests that the Japanese have very much non-free market sex. This city is just not built for daily trysts.

    They’re about how the Japanese self can disengage from Japan.

    Even if you buy into “Japan is a willfully collectivist society” and not a “coerced collectivist society,” you need to realize the pressures that the individual faces to keep up with others. I try very hard to properly do all the reigi and keigo in my organzational life, and of course, I think it’s hard because I’m a foreigner, but no one here thinks it’s easy. If keeping up propriety 24/7 was so simple, Confucius would never have had to say anything.

  10. nate Says:

    NEWS FLASH! Momus is trying to kill the Japanese. Too much sleep a seemingly reliable predictor of mortality!

    in case I am messing up the link:
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/life/thisweek/story/0,12977,1140726,00.html
    or search google for: hours sleep japan

  11. nate Says:

    yeah, I did mess it up. what’s the format for a link around here anyway?

  12. alin Says:

    for a couple of days something interesting almost happened. a cross-fertilization. neomarxisme was almost shifted to click opera. then alas reterritorialization occured and by the looks of it we’re back in 2005.

  13. Momus Says:

    That Guardian article is weird. “It just seems to happen that normal, healthy adults sleep for about 7 to 7 hours a night,” Horne says.” Is that a misprint? From 7 to 7 hours a night? Not much latitude there!

    Ironically, since writing my piece on sleep I’ve been sleeping very badly. And this morning I woke up after “7 to 7 hours” only to find a bee stinging my face! I blame Japanese orthopraxy.

  14. Momus Says:

    (By the way, Nate, to do a link here you just have to be sure to put “these quote marks” around the URL, the rest is the same as any normal link HTML.)

  15. nate Says:

    a ha. thanks.
    that said, I think this is a better explanation of the contents. The guardian article on second glance was a total mess.

    alin, do you want this place to be click opera? And has click opera changed for 2006, or is it just like 2005 there too?

  16. alin Says:

    this place to be click opera?

    oh, no, what would be the point of swapping urls, but some mutations would be welcome

  17. nate Says:

    so long as I’m power mad with my new-found linking ability: The study… found that 41 percent of Japanese people manage six hours or less zzzzs per night, making it the most sleep-deprived nation on Earth.

    that’s from april last year.
    The no-humping figures from durex can be confirmed if you look at most of the youth magazines. In the sex surveys, women want to have sex at most twice a month, men usually once a week. What they’re actually getting in a relationship is usally less.

    Sure the morals about sex and sleep are different, and consequently, sex and sleep are visible at every corner, but japan, like lots of other places should sleep and fuck more. (or fuck, then sleep)

  18. alin Says:

    watching TV may well have something to do with Japan’s chronic lack of sleep

    but it is well known on neomarxisme that only some bored housewives and prepuberscent girls ever watch TV so the article is obviously wrong.

    what is this freaky tendency here to want to talk of japan as one lump.

    women want to have sex at most twice a month

    tatemae!

    on mutations: the protagonists here (monopolizing the bandwidth) ending up taking extreme, caricature positions they themselves don’t quite believe in creating a binary plot as unambiguous as that of star wars and disalowing the posibility of a third, fourth nth position.

  19. Michael McCarthy Says:

    Not to mention, that the Backstreet Boys had performed in Japan, not just a few days ago. Coincidence? I think not.

    Boy band back in Japan after three years on their Never Gone tour. Jan 7, 6pm; Jan 8, 5pm; A¥7,500/S¥8,500, Tokyo Dome, Korakuen.

    8,500en for Backstreet Boys? Elvis Costello is 9,000/10,000… there’s no justice in this berg.

  20. Mark E Says:

    The notion that Japanese people have a special relationship with sleep or however you want to put it is just ridiculous. Every example Momus cites in order to prove this special relationship between the Japanese and sleep can be countered with a comparable anecdote and common sense.

    The two explanations provided, safety and proximity to the floor, lack any comparative basis.

    Safety means little. Tired people sleep soundly on trains and subways in NYC, London, Paris and many other places in the world. Maybe in Jerusalem at the height of a wave of suicide bombings the sleeping commuter is difficult to find, but in a typical urban arena, it is usually not an issue for a native. True, I have seen more people sleeping while standing than anywhere else in the world and that seems to be unique – but is that proof of a unique cultural phenomenon? It could have just as much to do with, as mentioned in previous posts, an overworked labor force or a population having gotten used to not regularly getting a seat and having adapted.

    Proximity to the floor equally makes no sense. Kotatsu culture is conducive to sleep, but so to is a comfy chair or sofa and central heating (and in both cases a TV in the background). Furthermore the idea that sleep is a private experience that guests cannot be privy to witness is a ridiculous assertion. I doubt that there exists a holiday meal, which often enough brings guests into the home, in any culture that does not consist of a level of “public” napping after the feast.

    Finally with kabuki – which is more likely the cause of mass sleep at a performance? A unique tacit cultural ritual OR the fact that kabuki is often difficult for modern viewer to understand given the use of Edo Period dialogue, the fact that Kabuki is slow paced as compared to modern narratives that we are used to, the fact that the majority of a typical Kabuki or bunraku audience is made up of elderly people, thus giving the impression that more people are sleeping than perhaps an average statistical slice of Japanese society would. Perhaps all are right, but one is certainly not more important than the other.

    The mechanisms of sleep may be different in Japan – using a kotatsu rather than a sofa, standing, willingness to sleep on the floor – but the fact of the matter is that the average Brit, Chinese, American, Frenchman, Korean, Egyptian, or whatever nationality or culture, relishes in sleep as much as an average Japanese.

  21. Momus Says:

    I would comment on that, but I’m afraid I fell asleep half way through.

  22. marxy Says:

    I will jump in and say that I do agree with Momus that a lot of Japanese people make a very big deal about sleeping. Maybe “fetishize” is too strong, but there is something “cool” perceived about it. Like being into ramen or baseball spectatorship or drinking, it’s one of those hobbies you mention in your jiko-shoukai to announce to the world that you have no personality.

  23. jasong Says:

    The government ministries have rooms with cots, as do many private corporations. I think people get their 7 or 8 hours of z’s, but often in chunks — home, train, and sometimes work (don’t work hard, just be there).

    Salaried workers are much, much less obligated to go out drinking with bosses and managers in the last few years, as is female employees having to serve tea etc. (though there are still trad holdouts). The difference even between ’98 (when I first came to J) and now is almost day and night. Leaving work before the boss can still a difficult proposition, though.

    お先に失礼します。

  24. alin Says:

    the super-cozines of most public spaces is also a factor. especially in winter. i for one, admitedly carrying a rather large sleep debt (if such thing does indeed exist), fell asleep some 15 times between kansai airport and kyoto first time i arrived in japan: the heated seats on various trains, ultra cozy coffee-shops, seats in waiting areas etc.

  25. alin Says:

    difference even between ’98 and now

    that’s right. when things to change they really do here. blame it or credit it to the absence of a metaphysical third or is it fourth dimension. thus i often find the stuff here hystrionic. when necessity comes, be it the tea-serving pattern or concrete overtake green, the pattern will change and adapt and move on. wait and see japan’s beautiful beaches and riverbeds in some 50, no more likely 20, years time – ( concrete was ok in the 20th century so they really went for it – it’s not ok in the 21st and you could sort of see at the aichi expo where things are going.)

  26. jasong Says:

    wait and see japan’s beautiful beaches and riverbeds in some 50, no more likely 20, years time

    That’s the spirit — I hope it happens. Just as Japan was the country that recovered from devastation like no other — it can overcome the ills caused by that past-expiry-date recovery system. The doomsaying of Dogs and Demons is already becoming antiquated — even Kerr himself would have to agree somewhat:

    http://www.japantimes.co.jp/cgi-bin/getarticle.pl5?fl20051025zg.htm

    What is Marxy’s and others’ take on his book?

  27. marxy Says:

    The government ministries have rooms with cots, as do many private corporations.

    Think about all the waste if people went home to their wives and children.

    that’s right. when things to change they really do here

    I don’t think change in culture or behavior just “happens.” There are two scenarios: the companies/institutions in control decide (autonomously) to change OR new companies/institutions enter society and force change. Number two is relatively rare in most of the Japanese cultural industries (especially with music), but the market gap was so giant in the IT world, that a whole new breed came in and took over. To Japan’s credit, the decision-making for coast-to-coast is so centralized, that if the bureaucrats actually decide to do something, it becomes the Word very quickly. If for some reason they’ve decided concrete doesn’t fill their pockets like it used to, maybe they’re moving onto something else. But I seriously doubt whatever they’re moving to doesn’t included the government-financing construction lobby.

    Last week, one of my professors referred to Japan as a 無思想 (un-ideological) society, which yes, can sometimes be useful for change by not putting up very much resistance from the populace. Most ideological/philosophical changes are then generally superficial and faddish, and no one actually digests them. This may ease the acceptance of pre-decided transformations but make real progression very difficult.

  28. nate Says:

    alin: tatemae!

    that’s well and good for the women’s answers, but for men, especially young men, the more socially appropriate number should be higher than once a week. if there’s much tatemae involved it would influence the frequency upward.

    and from where do you draw your ability to diagnose japanese sex lives? do japanese folks drop their tatemae when they talk with you?

    can you site some statistic that shows some other tendency? or are all statistics based on surveys flawed in japan?

    From my experience young (out of school) lovers don’t even really want to meet more than once or twice a week.

  29. alin Says:

    marxy. i 95% agree with the above which is alltogether a more balanced and agreeable position. keep up the good work.

  30. alin Says:

    nate: hazukasii kara sono hanasi wo tsuzukerarenai

  31. no sex please, we're ... Says:

    Sexless Japan: “http://search.japantimes.co.jp/print/features/life2004/fl20041212x1.htm”

  32. Marcus Says:

    “At least in America, the time after work is “me time” if not “Miller Time,” and there are enough hours to self-medicate and bask in the false sense of freedom before going back to the office to resume cog duty the following morning.”

    You (Marxys, excuse me for addressing you directly), as an American, may feel the time after work is “me time” and that you have enough of it in comparison to the Japanese… but I read an article by a Swedish correspondent living in the states and he commented on how Americans would never stop talking about their jobs, and how they’d keep on working even in their spare time. Maybe the US, to Swedes, is the same evil Japan is to you?