My hobby is sleeping

I have been a very bad blogger, and my excuse is general busy-ness and an evil cold which gravitated, as they always do, to my throat and took my voice away. I thought several times over the past week about this other voice I now have, but was too floppy and pathetic to galvanise myself into action. However, today, November 25th, would have been my Grandad’s 112th birthday (Happy Birthday, Grandad!) and he was fond of declaring, ‘The less you do, the less you want to do!’, so with his voice ringing in my ears, I shall update my blog.

‘My hobby is sleeping.’ Another of those sentences anyone who has lived in Japan will probably roll their eyes at, because at some point a Japanese person will have told them this. Since I got up very early this morning to go to church but promised myself as I did so that I would come home and sleep for a few hours this afternoon, I thought this was a timely topic. I was also inspired to write about this a while ago when I noticed on Facebook that over 22.8 million people ‘like’ sleeping. I must admit that I find these random lists of people’s ‘likes’ unintentionally funny; ‘Purplegirl likes the Dalai Lama’, ‘Purplegirl likes Yorkshire Tea’. It implies I like them in the same way, that one ‘like’ fits all. Then there are the combinations of my friends who have never met; ‘A and B like reading’, ‘C and D like Marmite’, and I think, how can this be so? They don’t know each other, oh, wait . . . and so I come back to sleeping, and the 22.7 million people who ‘like’ it.

I went to the Facebook page for ‘liking’ sleeping, and clicked on the 22.8 million plus people who are fond of this ‘naturally occurring state’. Scrolling through the first twenty or so, I found quite a number of names of Japanese people or people identifying as living in Japan. Of course there were plenty of names which didn’t fit into either category, but what is it about sleeping that makes it appeal to people in Japan as a ‘hobby’?

First of all, it seems absurd, since in my experience Japanese people I have met often take their hobby much more seriously than people in the UK. Once we are adults, I think people in the UK would regard a hobby mainly as something they enjoy doing. If it is a sport, a musical instrument or some other kind of cultural pursuit they may have studied or practised at some point earlier in their life, but by adulthood have reached a kind of plateau, where it is fun, relaxing or rewarding. In contrast, I know a lot of Japanese people who continue to take classes in their chosen hobby throughout their life. It could be something traditional, like ikebana or tea ceremony, kendo or calligraphy, or something more readily identifiable to people in other countries; a sport or a musical instrument. I have known wives of retiring ‘salarymen’, alarmed at the prospect of their husband underfoot at home all day every day, slot a number of classes for hobbies into their husbands’ newly-free schedules until they are almost as scheduled as they were at work. Developing one’s skills is a serious business. I feel it is probably an extension of the attitude to the traditional arts and sports, where you would expect to spend a lifetime perfecting skills under the tutelage of a more experienced practitioner.

This attachment to the idea that ‘my hobby is sleeping’ seems to be a more recent development, and maybe one that grew out of the mother of all sleep-deprived times, the bubble. As I have mentioned before, I have friends whose memories of those years is something akin to a worker bee with very little time to re-charge the batteries. Get up, go to work, work, go home, eat, sleep, repeat. I can see that in such an environment you would indeed start to schedule time to catch up on sleep; that it would indeed take on the feeling of some luxury commodity that even money couldn’t buy.

While their parents were beavering away at the company, Japanese teenagers post-war clambered on the hamster wheel of studying, the cram school or juku (塾). It is still big business and many students go to one after school at various points in their academic career, usually in the years preceding entrance exams. Since there are entrance exams for primary schools, junior and senior high schools and universities that’s a lot of cramming. The school day in Japan starts before 9am and classes finish around 3pm. After that there’s dismissal, cleaning and school clubs and then, for a great many students, cram school. It’s not uncommon for them to get home after 9pm, so that’s a 12-hour-plus day. No wonder sleep seems so appealing.

I am left with two contradictory impressions of Japanese ‘hobbies’; there are the people who make a life-long study of something, and then there are the exhausted millions who fall asleep on trains, the students who can put their head on a desk and be fast asleep in seconds, and all the people, of all ages, across the country, who even as they start a new week tomorrow will be promising themselves a nice long sleep next weekend.

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