Sleep

  • Peter Barakan

    Host

    Born in London in 1951, Peter earned a degree in Japanese from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). An expert on diverse forms of popular music, Peter is also a well-known TV and radio presenter. He has lived in Japan for 40 years and has a deep understanding of the language and culture.

  • Matt Alt

    Reporter

    Born in Washington D.C. in 1973, Matt's interest in Japan was kindled by robot toys in his childhood. He worked as a translator for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office before co-founding a company that produces English versions of Japanese comics and video games. He also writes extensively about cultural trends including yokai, ninja, emoji, and more.

  • Yukio Toyoda

    Main guest

    Yukio Toyoda is a professor at Rikkyo University in Tokyo. In contrast to the long-dominant biological approach to the science of sleep, he conducts his research from a cultural and sociological standpoint. His diverse fields of interest include: historical and geographical differences relating to sleep; contemporary sleeping arrangements; children and sleep; furniture preferences; the spiritual significance of dreams; and the ethnography of dreams.

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February 16, 2017

Sleep

*You will leave the NHK website.

As revealed by a 2016 survey of OECD member nations, the average Japanese citizen sleeps less each night than people in most other economically developed nations.

However, there are grounds for thinking that a lot of these sleep-derived people make up for lost ground in the daytime. Board any train in Japan, and there's a good chance that at least one or two people in the same carriage will be fast asleep. In fact, it's not especially unusual to see most of an entire row of seven or eight people in a carriage asleep or nodding off ("rowing the boat" is the phrase used in Japanese for the way the upper body jerks back from time to time as slumber descends).

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Don't be startled if the head of the person sitting next to you suddenly comes to rest on your shoulder as your neighbor enters "suya-suya" snooze mode. "Guu-guu" sleep, with its implication of snoring, is somewhat more unusual on the train, but some passengers may seem to be sleeping so soundly ("gussuri") that it can be hard to understand how in many cases they manage to spring to life when they arrive at their stop.

Although most Japanese nowadays sleep on Western-style beds, it is still common for the members of a family to lie down side by side on soft futon mattresses laid out across a tatami (woven straw mat) floor. Such a family is said to be sleeping like the character for river, which is written with three vertical lines.

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Members of a family sleepingside by side on futon mattresses.

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Peter and expert guest Yukio Toyoda talk surrounded by pillows.

The advantage of this arrangement in a Japanese home, where space is often at a premium, is that such bedding can be folded up and stowed in the closet when not in use. This is also a feature of a traditional Japanese inn, or ryokan. The beds are laid out in the evening, then stored behind sliding doors in closets during the day, in effect offering guests an uncluttered sitting room in the daytime and a comfortable bedroom at night.

Another advantage of the futon is affordability. Many bedding, interior, and department stores offer reasonably priced futon sets including a mattress (shiki-buton), duvet (kake-buton), and pillow (makura). Seasonal items include a heavy blanket (mofu) and a light summer blanket made from toweling, dubbed a towel-ket.

As traditional as the futon may seem, for most of Japanese history people often just fell asleep on the floor, which is not especially difficult in a room with tatami mats. In the old days, a sleeper's head might have rested on a takamakura (high pillow). These lacquered wooden boxes, topped with a softer cylindrical pillow, were sometimes 15 centimeters tall.

Nowadays, more sleepers are embracing the dakimakura (hugging pillow), a long, often cylindrical item similar to Western orthopedic pillows. Originally intended to help users find a comfortable position, some dakimakura are designed like large plush toys, while others may be emblazoned with an anime princess to accompany you into the realm of dreams.

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One example of a dakimakura.

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Matt Alt's presentation of February-themed “sleeping baby art.”

*You will leave the NHK website.