Expats in Japan or travelers to Japan often wonder why Japanese people sleep on trains.
Japanese people think it is very natural to sleep on trains. They would actually be surprised to hear that people elsewhere do not fall asleep in trains.
When I started preparing to write this article, I was literally going to write why Japanese people sleep in trains, as if it were the strangest thing. However, if you change the point of view, you may start to think that it is quite natural; instead, you may start to wonder why people elsewhere do not sleep in trains.
I remembered the fact that even in the West, people sometimes fall asleep when they are in the passengers’ seats or back seats of cars. I myself am the kind of person who never falls asleep while in the passenger’s seat. One reason is because I drive myself, so I become very awake once I get inside a car; perhaps this is an instinctive thing for safety reasons. The second reason is because, for me, it is a rare experience to have someone give me a ride. Third, if someone is giving me a ride, it is like having a conversation with that person or being in a room with that person, so I do not feel sleepy, even for hours. If you think about it, you would normally not feel sleepy or fall asleep if you were with some stranger in the same space such as a car or room. You would become sleepy only when you were with someone you felt comfortable with, such as a family member, friend or someone you could trust.
To determine whether my memory that people in other countries sometimes fall asleep when they are sitting in a passengers’ seat is correct, I searched the internet. There are quite a few web pages that talk about this topic – that is, why people become sleepy when they get in a car and sit in the passenger’s seat. So, people elsewhere in the world DO fall asleep, at least in cars.
Japanese people themselves often wonder why they become so sleepy in trains as well.There are scientific reasons. It is mainly the white noise, vibrations and subtle shaking of trains that make people sleepy. Some scholars say it is because of 1/f fluctuation. Therefore, it is natural that people become sleepy.
To make a baby sleep, we often give him or her a subtle and gentle shaking or gentle pats at a slow, certain rhythm. Also, significantly, mothers often move the baby carriage back and forth slowly and gently to stop a baby from crying, making believe that the “vehicle” is moving.
The question now is, why do people elsewhere not sleep “in the train”, but Japanese people do? As many would say, sleeping in public transportation in most parts of the world can be a dangerous thing to do. There are people from all kinds of backgrounds and you just do not know how the people around you would react or what they would do to you. There is the possibility that you may become the victim of a crime, such as being pick-pocketed. As I mentioned earlier, you just do not feel comfortable or sleepy unless you are with only people you know or trust. This would be one reason that keeps people elsewhere from sleeping on public transportation.
Japan, on the other hand, is quite different. Japan nowadays may be different from what it used to be, but other passengers in the same train would almost be like people from the same small village or like neighbors. Naturally, they do not know each other, but they have a feeling as if everyone was some sort of kinship. (This is what I call “small village people mentality” and it has a big influence on the social and individual activities of the Japanese.) They do not need to worry about their belongings getting stolen while they sleep. Even if there happened to be a thief, many of their “kin” in the train would be watching out for them while they slept.
Anybody who was around them would be almost the same as kin. This is exemplified by the linguistic fact that in Japanese, any elderly woman is called “obaasan”, which means “grandmother”, and any middle-aged man is called “ojisan”, which means “uncle”. For them, any middle-aged woman is not much different from a real aunt.
Trains maintain very natural sleep-inducing elements, and they are with their “kin”, around whom they do not have to be careful and who would even protect them if anything were to happen. There is nothing that stops them from falling asleep on trains!