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Social and cultural aspects of sleep in Japan

Investigator: Dr Brigitte Steger 

I have collaborated with a wide range of researchers from various disciplines, exploring social and cultural aspects of sleep, mainly in Japan (see list of publications).


'The Japanese Art of (Not) Sleeping', article originally published in CAM 77, was re-published on the BBC Worldservice website, 23 May 2016 (officially 6 May); the article has been accessed by about half a million unique browsers in the first month and translated into Turkish, Spanish, Hausa, Bahasa Indonesia, Farsi (Persian), Chinese, Vietnamese and Portuguese on BBC websites and the research has also been published in Russian, Vietnamese, Azeri (Azerbaijani), Italian, Albanian, Taiwanese, Chinese, Romanian, Japanese, Greek, Polish, French, Georgian, Arabic, Czech, Serbo-croation, Latvian, Hungarian and others.

'Napping in Public? In Japan, That's a Sign of Diligence', New York Times, 16 December 2016.

Life Interview on Radio Cambridgeshire, 22 July 2016 (Jeremy Sallis Show).

Interview on News Talk Radio Dublin, 16 June 2016.

Exhibition and Symposium on the Culture of Sleep at the University of Kyoto, April 2016: Video message and interview.

'The Big Sleep', article published in CAM 77, the almuni magazine of Cambridge University, Lent term (spring) 2016.

Interview with Brigitte Steger on napping in the classroom in The ASEM LLL Hub magazine, the official network of Asian and European higher education institutions (November 2015): 

Podcast BBC Radio 3 'Free Thinking: Sleep and Creativity', on 7 January 2015. Discussion with Rana Mitter, Russel Foster, Matt Berry, Katharine Craik and Brigitte Steger.


The book 


(The world has recognised the Japanese way of napping)

has been published with Hankyu Communications, now CCC media (6 June 2013; second print edition: 15 September 2013).

The book has been introduced/reviewed in Pen Online (9 June 2013),  Nikkei Shinbun (23 June 2013), Yuukan Fuji (26 June 2013), Shuukan Bunshun (4 August 2013), and many private blogs. The famous philosopher Kayano Toshihito, in a review for the Asahi Shinbun (1 September 2013) describes it as a 'very intelligent and fun book' (とても知的で楽しい本) and the book ranked no. 51 on the Amazon Japan bestseller list on that day before going out of print. Many reviewers and bloggers say that the book made them see everyday behaviour in a new light and made them think. Further reviews: Yomiuri Shinbun (8 September 2013), Yomiuri Family (18 September 2013), Radio Tokyo FM (23 September 2013), Shuukan Asahi (27 September 2013), Kyoto Shinbun (10 October 2013, front page), Aera (14 October 2013), Kyoto University Press (1 November 2013), Library news (tosho nyuusu) by Osaka Prefectural Kitano Highschool (5 December 2013), (Mainichi Shinbun (26 March 2014, front page), President (11 August 2014), Kyodo news (printed in many regional newspapers, incl. Iwate Nippo - 26 August 2014, Chugoku Shinbun, Gifu Shinbun, Shikoku Shinbun, Niigata Shinbun, Saitama Shinbun, Kanagawa Shinbun, Shizuoka Shinbun)

See also the collection of references here: Navigator:

Two last monographs are under preparation to be published with a major academic publisher:

Book I: Sleeping through Time. A Cultural History of Sleep in Japan (under review)

This book is the first cultural history of sleep in Japan. It shows life in the Japan of yesteryear from an as-yet-unexplored perspective, thereby providing new insights into how daily life and values have developed over the centuries. It is therefore of interest to those who wish to discover more about the human dimension of Japanese history. The book also theoretically develops socio-cultural and historical aspects of sleep and demonstrates how sleep is influenced by socio-economical and cultural circumstances, thereby leading us to question some of our basic assumptions about our sleeping lives.

The book has five main chapters plus Conclusions and Bibliography.

The Introduction (First chapter) gives a brief introduction to the research questions and methodology. Most of the chapter, however, is a history of sleep in Europe, based mainly on secondary literature. Much of this literature is in German and is introduced here to an English-speaking readership for the first time. It provides a brief outline of the history of sleep from Greek antiquity to the late twentieth century and helps to provide the comparative context for the discussion of sleep in Japanese history.

The second chapter, “Early to bed, early to rise?” discusses nocturnal sleeping time in premodern Japan, from the earliest available sources until the mid-nineteenth century. Most people assume that our ancestors went to bed when night fell and naturally got up early. In this book I will argue that the sleeping schedules of yesteryear were not such a simple affair. Although there was a general orientation towards sunlight, people did not “naturally” get up when the sun rose and go to bed when darkness fell. There were social rules on when and for how long one should sleep, and these rules differed depending on the period of history, social class, age, and gender of the sleeper. Because of the vulnerability of the sleeper, security measures also had to be taken into account.

Chapter Three, “Premodern sleep patterns”, investigates historic sleep patterns. Did people stay awake at night? Who stayed awake and for what purpose? Did they sleep during the day? Based on the typology described above, I will discuss in detail the question of the relationship between sleep and the socio-economic and cultural conditions throughout premodern history. Investigating nighttime activities and daytime sleep, I will argue that – much like contemporary Japan – people in premodern times followed polyphasic sleep patterns. However, there are nevertheless differences in meaning to be observed in these patterns. Sleep behavior was not mainly a health concern, but a question of proper moral conduct, or more precisely, of health care. The concept of yōjō (literally, “nurturing life”, health care) in the Edo period was more concerned with moral conduct rather than with bio-medicine.

Chapter Four, “Modernizing sleep for a healthy and economically successful nation”, introduces the discourse on sleep by medical experts, industrialists, and social reformers, which was triggered by the rapid changes in Meiji-era Japan. They were all influenced by international discourses and had to deal with radical transformations in attitudes to health care, industrialization, and work organization. They all demanded that sleep patterns should adjust to fast and radical socio-economic changes, depending on their own individual interests. In the chapter, I will discuss how representatives of these social groups dealt with people’s need for rest. I will show that a monophasic sleep rhythm was called for and that over the decades this achieved the status of the norm, although, in reality, actual sleep patterns did not change significantly. As one example of how new (and old) ideas about healthy sleep and a moral and economic lifestyle were forged, I will then focus on the “early-rising associations” (hayaoki-kai) of the early twentieth century to investigate how such theoretical discourse influenced the rural youth. I will argue that early rising in connection with exercising and early morning training was used to mobilize the rural youth to work (and later to fight) for their country.

The fifth chapter, “‘Sleep is the highest form of happiness’ – Leisure development and sleep (1970s to 1990s)”, confronts the duration and distribution of sleep as negotiated between work and leisure in the second half of the twentieth century during the time of Japan’s “leisure development” policy. I will argue that sleep can be a favorite leisure pursuit, but that it may also come into conflict with other leisure pursuits and have to be sacrificed when people want to spend more time on other pastimes. I explore how the Japanese have dealt with the increasing social demand beginning in the 1970s to enjoy their lives to the full by spending more time and money on active leisure. I will show that while increasing leisure time has not had a significant impact on the number of hours people spend at work, it has instead reduced their time in bed. However, many are still able to find an opportunity to indulge in their “highest form of happiness”, i.e., sleep, by finding opportunities for napping or inemuri during both work and leisure activities.

In my conclusion I will return to the question of the relationship between sleep times and sleep patterns and socio-economic developments. I will argue that much like premodern Japan, postmodern Japan can be categorized as a polyphasic or napping society. However, as I will elaborate in detail, the meaning and value attributed to sleep and napping have changed substantially.


Book II: No time to sleep? An anthropology of sleep in Japan

This book specifically explores sociological and cultural issues of sleep; it introduces and develops theories of sleep and sheds new light on social behavior in Japan that have so far puzzled many visitors, including me, but has been taken for granted by the Japanese themselves.

The first chapter, “Vulnerability and sleep,” is based on the understanding that the function of sleep is necessary both physiologically and for the maintenance of social order while at the same time being endangered by social demands and disturbances. The function of sleep must thus be protected in various ways. I will elaborate how this has been done in different countries, different historical periods and different social groups and argue that this aim is achieved on the one hand by a spatial and temporal separation of sleep and waking. Sleeping is allocated to certain rooms, and to certain times. On the other hand, especially in polychronic societies, the function of sleep is guaranteed through a certain amount of tolerance for inemuri. Furthermore, I deal with the question of the transition from sleep to active wakefulness, to understand how both functions are ensured. I continue by arguing that the question of vulnerability during sleep plays a central role for how sleep is socially organized both in bed and in the case of inemuri. This is not only a question of public safety, but also of the social acceptability of certain kinds of sleep as well as feelings of emotional safety and belonging. For example, the way the sleep of the tennō (emperor) in ancient Japan was protected and represented clarifies the various aspects of physical, social, and spiritual security.

In Chapter 2, I investigate sleep habits at tsunami evacuation shelters in Yamada town, Iwate prefecture after the 3.11 disaster. Based on fieldwork in two shelters in June and July 2011, I ask how people’s sleep was affected by the experience of the tsunami and loss of house, job and family members/friends. How did people managed to (re-)ensure good sleep in the situation of the shelter? How did they organize sleep? etc. To frame this ethnographic research theoretically, I will I revisit the literature on co-sleeping, starting from William Caudill and David Plath’s seminal article “Who sleeps by whom” (1966). In the literature on mother-child co-sleeping, sharing a room with a child has mostly been described as a means to keep the child dependent from their mother. I take a different approach and regard co-sleeping as one way to ensure a good night’s sleep.

The third chapter, “The Work Ethics of Sleeping on the Job,” seeks to answer the question, what does it mean to be diligent in Japan, where working hours are apparently long and nighttime sleep is thus sacrificed, while inemuri in class or at meetings and in other work-related situations is largely tolerated as normal? I analyze these questions from two angles. First I investigate why teachers display a great deal of tolerance for inemuri in the classroom. Second, I discuss inemuri in parliamentary meetings. Based on a series of articles in the weekly magazine Shūkan Hōseki, I analyse the arguments used to criticize and justify the representatives’ sleep. Coming to the conclusion that sleep in a dedicated sleeping place (be it nocturnal sleep or an afternoon nap) has to be socially distinguished from inemuri, I then go on to analyze this difference and theoretically discuss inemuri, whereby I take recourse to Erving Goffman’s (1963) concept of “involvements within social situations.”

In Chapter 4, “Thighs wide open, hair loose: gender-specific attitudes towards napping in Japanese public transport,” I deal with inemuri on the train. Large numbers of both men and women sleep (inemuri) on Japanese trains. Inemuri is often explained by a high level of public safety in Japan. Media discourse, however, reveals gender differences in attitudes toward public napping. I will discuss how the public space of trains has been negotiated in the Japanese past and present and what makes napping in public safe. In particular, I will elaborate on gender-specific rules of public behaviour and gender relations, as well as the role inemuri plays in these negotiations.