For many of us, it is a daily ritual. The eyelids become heavy when the effects of lunch appear. The head drops forward, only to snap back, ideally before anyone in the office notices. Energy levels are at rock bottom. The afternoon bath has arrived. And resistance is futile.
The Spanish have their siesta, and millions of French exercise their right to take a nap after eating. The Japanese equivalent is hirun – an afternoon nap that somehow makes up for their lack of sleep.
With long commutes, grueling working hours and minimal sleep at night, it’s no wonder so many Japanese workers succumb to napping.
More than 40% sleep less than six hours a night, according to a recent government survey. The Department of Health recommends that adults get at least six hours of sleep a night amid evidence that poor nighttime habits contribute to poor mental and physical health. “There is a need to correct long working hours and allow workers to sleep more so they can maintain a healthy mental state,” a ministry official said recently.
There is little chance of that.
A 2021 study by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development found that Japanese sleep an average of seven hours and 22 minutes a night – the shortest of the 33 countries surveyed and well below the average of eight hours and 28 minutes.
Far from being a sign of laziness, the office afternoon nap – known as inemursor sleeping while present – is a testament to the employee’s unwavering commitment to the corporate cause, although etiquette dictates that tablecloths should not be horizontal in case they look a little too comfortable.
The sleep business has spawned an industry dedicated to achieving the perfect nap, which experts say is an undisturbed period of about 20 minutes after which the body begins to drift into a deeper sleep, leaving people feeling groggy when they wake up.
In Japan, exhausted employees are turning to gadgets, from desk headrests and heated eye masks, in search of emerging from an afternoon nap refreshed and full of productivity.
For the most complete experience, Giraffe – a specially designed cabin with strategically placed cushions and platforms that support the buttocks, lower legs, head and feet – allows users to take a nap standing up.
Developed by experts at Hokkaido University, the prototype pods come in two designs: one that blocks out sound and light, and another that lets in a bit of both to soothe claustrophobic travelers.
“Giraffes sleep standing up for about 20 minutes a day,” said Yoshihito Nohara of Plywood Corporation, a Hokkaido-based company that plans to sell the pods, for about 3 million yen apiece, to offices, medical facilities and airports starting in January. “In the same way, 20 minutes a day is enough for a nap.”
The booths drew a generally positive reaction during a recent trial run at a coffee shop in Tokyo. “I thought standing would be hard on my knees, but surprisingly, it didn’t stress them too much,” said one napper. “I felt like it was a really thoughtful setup.”
Another said: I slept standing up for the first time. My body weight was more supported than I expected and I was able to get some rest.”
Never one to miss an opportunity to take a nap, this reporter tested several commercially available gadgets to see if technology and ergonomics could combine to facilitate a rejuvenating afternoon nap.
Dreamlight Heat Lite, an eye mask from Tokyo-based Weatherly Japan, bathes the eye sockets with heat while also blocking light. The device follows the contours of the face. The heated element, however, was not particularly useful during Tokyo’s unseasonably warm autumn.
Atex, a lifestyle company from Osaka, might be on to something with its massage chair inspiration gogo no makura “afternoon pillow”.
Priced at around ¥8,000 (£43), the device isn’t cheap, but a lot of thought has gone into its design.
The idea is to hook the padded part over the table to protect your chest, adjust the rest at the desired angle – between 10 and 45 degrees – put your hands in front and your face in the hole in the middle and float away. To avoid overdozing, users can set a timer for up to an hour and be awakened by gentle vibrations.
There’s something to be said for both gadgets if you work in brightly lit offices where sleeping on the job is tolerated.
But for those of us who, post-pandemic, spend at least part of the week working from home, it’s hard to beat plopping down on the couch and giving in to sleep. Carbohydrate fix during lunch is optional.