For many of us, it is a daily ritual. The eyelids grow heavy as the after-effects of lunch kick in. The head slumps forwards, only to recoil, ideally before anyone in the office has noticed. Energy levels are at rock bottom. The afternoon dip is here. And resistance is futile.
The Spanish have their siestas and millions of French people exercise their right to a postprandial power nap. The Japanese equivalent is the hirune – an afternoon snooze that goes some way towards compensating for their lack of sleep.
With long commutes, punishing work hours and the bare minimum of sleep at night, it is little wonder that so many Japanese workers succumb to the power nap.
More than 40% get less than six hours’ sleep a night, according to a recent government survey. The health ministry recommends that adults get at least six hours’ sleep a night amid evidence that poor nocturnal habits contribute to poor mental and physical health. “There is a need to rectify long working hours and enable workers to get more sleep so they can maintain a healthy mental state,” a ministry official said recently.
There is precious little chance of that.
A 2021 study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development indicated that Japanese people sleep an average of seven hours and 22 minutes a night – the shortest time among the 33 nations surveyed and considerably lower than the average of eight hours and 28 minutes.
Far from a sign of laziness, the office afternoon nap – known as inemuri, or sleeping while present – is evidence of an employees’ unshakeable commitment to the corporate cause, although etiquette demands that nappers should avoid getting horizontal in case they appear just a little too comfortable.
The business of sleep has spawned an industry devoted to achieving the perfect nap, said by experts to be an undisturbed period of up to about 20 minutes, beyond which the body starts to fall into a deeper sleep, leaving people feeling groggy when they wake up.
In Japan, exhausted employees are turning to gadgets, from desk-mounted head rests and heated eye masks, in a quest to emerge from their afternoon nap refreshed and bursting with productivity.
For the most immersive experience, Giraffenap – a specially designed booth with strategically placed pads and platforms that support the backside, shins, head and feet – allows users to nap while standing.
Developed by experts from Hokkaido University, the prototype pods come in two designs: one that blocks out sound and light, and another that lets in a little of both to reassure claustrophobic occupants.
“Giraffes sleep standing up for about 20 minutes a day,” said Yoshihito Nohara of Plywood Corporation, a Hokkaido-based firm that plans to sell the pods, for about ¥3m apiece, to offices, medical facilities and airports from January. “In the same way, 20 minutes a day is just right for a nap.”
The booths drew a generally positive reaction during a recent trial run at a cafe in Tokyo. “I thought standing up would be tough on my knees, but surprisingly, it didn’t really put much of a load on them,” one napper said. “I felt like it was a really thoughtful setup.”
Another said: “It was my first time sleeping standing up. My bodyweight was more supported than I expected and I was able to get some rest.”
Never one to pass up the opportunity for a snooze, this reporter tried out a couple of commercially available gadgets to see if technology and ergonomics can combine to facilitate a rejuvenating afternoon nap.
Dreamlight Heat Lite, an eye mask by Tokyo-based Weatherly Japan, bathes the eye sockets in warmth as well as blocking out light. The device follows the contours of the face. The heated element, though, wasn’t particularly helpful during an unusually warm autumn in Tokyo.
Atex, a lifestyle company in Osaka, could be on to something with its massage chair-inspired gogo no makura “afternoon pillow”.
Priced at around ¥8,000 [£43], the device is not cheap, but a lot of thought has gone into its design.
The idea is to hook the padded section over your desk to protect your chest, adjust the rest to the required angle – between 10 and 45 degrees – place your arms in front and your face in the hole in the middle, and drift off. To avoid over-napping, users can set a timer for up to an hour and be woken by gentle vibrations.
There is 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 some of the week working from home, flopping on to the sofa and surrendering to slumber is hard to beat. A lunchtime fix of carbs is, of course, optional.