Thursday, November 11, 2004


You mentioned the way folks sleep on the trains in wasn't you? Somebody did. Oh it was this guy. He's got a lot of fotos on his blog of salarymen sleeping on the trains in Japan. To me, those fotos are like snapshots of air. I almost don't see what's photographic about the subject. I'm not sure one wouldn't see the same thing on the Long Island Railroad, if that has ever really been operative. But since I'm on the subject, there is a difference, to wit:

He says the folks in the pictures are sleeping because they're exhausted but exhaustion isn't really necessary; EVERYBODY sleeps on trains in Japan, even standing up; as an old Japan hand I've done it myself, in fact, buckling knees and all. And speaking of facts, the fact is I’ve never seen an entire country before that could fall asleep in an instant on any sort of conveyance like the Japanese can do.

Some have said it's because of the way Japanese babies used to be carried strapped to their mothers, but as I have indicated I can do the e-z-sleep on trains and buses too, even standing up, and I've never been strapped to a Japanese mother that I know of. Next explanation please.

It just so happens that I have one handy right here, if you could just wait while I establish the necessary background to the genesis of a budding hypothesis. Not long after I first came to Japan, while on a bus I saw a soundly sleeping schoolgirl wake up and press the button for her stop, then go back to sleep! (She woke again when the bus stopped.) This puzzled me, who sat there awake watching, and who had traveled over oceans and continents on all sorts of conveyances and not slept except when it was bedtime.

Japan in its long cultural development had clearly evolved a culturally cozy relation with sleep that was unknown in the west. (I know I'm getting into some scientificoculturosociologically iffy stuff here, so any links to scientific studies of cultural sleep would be greatly appreciated.) Of course in the west there are folks who can drop off to sleep at the slip of an eyelid; but those folks are usually very, very tired, or at some time in their past have been strapped to Japanese mothers.

In time I learned that Japanese people under conveyance don't really sleep, in the standard western sense of the word; as I discovered by doing, it is more like a state of suspended animation that speeds up time and makes commuting go by in a flash, like those astronauts in the pods in Alien; it is as kin to deep meditation as to sleep, perhaps somewhere in between.

I had no idea how to do it when I arrived with a history of zero commuting; now it's easy. All you do is get on a train, close your eyes and keep them shut. If you can get out of the way, as the Japanese know how to do through early meditation, you slip into a sleep, such as I am enjoying right now as I sit at my desk in the big city attempting to gather these letters together into words, these words together into zzzzzzz...

BUT there are no vivid dreams, as one sees in shallow sleep (are there dreams at desks?). Of those sleeping on the train, probably 1 in 100 is really “sleeping” and you sometimes hear snores, though nowhere near as often as during the go-go 80s, when everyone worked late and partied hard. And if you take that last train on a Friday, that drunken sleep is genuine drunken sleep, as differentiated from sleep, whence the sleeper awakens at the terminus without drooling.

Those fotos remind me: I have a train to catch...

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