I’ve lived in Japan for many years, and I found this as one of the most mysterious of their customs. To outsiders, it is probably very strange, as it was for me for a long time. I read blogs about Japan all the time, and this has become a punchline of sorts: tired Japanese salarymen asleep on trains, station benches and in other odd places. (I love Danny Choo’s take on it!)
Why do Japanese people sleep on the train? Why do they sleep at train stations or on park benches? How do they fall asleep as soon as the carriage doors close?
One reason Japanese people sleep at odd hours is because of the odd hours they keep. A lot of the salarymen who work in Tokyo, don’t actually live in Tokyo and have to commute from far-off places like Chiba, Saitama, Kanagawa, and even Gunma and Tochigi. They often get on the first train and try to get home on the last train. They spend the 2 or 3-hour trip home catching up on sleep. It’s basically the same for high school students. After 6 to 8 long hours of studying, they have to either work part-time or do sports or something after school so they’re probably really tired. They have to attend cram schools until late at night, too.
As to why they sleep well, there is one reason I found doubtful but somewhat interesting. It seems Japanese people have longer intestines, which means their circulation takes a little longer. Blood reaches their heads later, so they are able to sleep fitfully. I don’t know how true this is, but I’m going to look and ask around.
Also, I heard from someone that most don’t actually sleep on the train. A lot of them just find watching other people rude, so they shut their eyes. Others don’t want to give up their seats to others, so they feign sleep.
I’m sure there are other explanations out there. Let us know in the comments if you have any thoughts about this.