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Nation of workaholics sleeps on the job

In a nation known for its tireless diligence, Japan's students have joined a repose revolution that has investment bankers and bureaucrats sharing lunchtime with the sandman.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

For high school students everywhere, the classroom desk is often a place to catch a few winks of sleep. But instead of receiving a scolding, dozing teenagers at Meizen high school are more likely these days to find their teachers dimming the lights, putting on classical music and joining their students for a power nap.

In a nation known for its tireless diligence, the students have joined a repose revolution that has investment bankers and bureaucrats sharing lunchtime with the sandman. Meizen High, in this progressive southern metropolitan area of 5 million, last year became the first school in the nation to promote mental alertness by officially encouraging all students to take 15-minute naps in their classrooms after lunch. Several schools have followed suit, and others have said they might adopt the practice.

After-lunch naps have long been stigmatized as a sign of laziness in a society that experts call among the most sleep-deprived on earth. But, suddenly, they have become the latest rage, part of a mental alertness craze sweeping a nation known for its fondness for such fads. A flurry of scientific studies, books and high-profile news reports are heralding mini-siestas as an integral part of new daily regimens for enhancing mental agility.

Particularly popular in these regimens are activities such as coloring books that challenge adults to stay inside the lines of a Van Gogh painting and video games that are said to test intelligence with rapid-fire questions.

Nap salons
But the rise of the mini-siesta is perhaps the most noticeable evidence of the Japanese interest in gaining a mental edge. In the past two years, nap salons, as they're known, have popped up in Japan's major cities. One such salon in central Tokyo, Napia, boasts some 1,500 members. Fatigued office workers can take a brief lunchtime nap on a daybed there for the equivalent of about $4.50.

The Japanese have gotten the nap down to a science. Sleep studies by researchers in Japan and abroad have suggested that nappers not let their afternoon slumber last more than 30 minutes, lest they fall into a deeper sleep and awake feeling more groggy than refreshed. To that end, Napia offers its customers a cup of coffee before nap time. Caffeine takes about 20 minutes to kick in, so the java kick acts as a natural wake-up call.

"My nap is such an important part of my day," said Kunikazu Tabata, a 39-year-old asset manager who began napping regularly a year ago. Straightening his tie and rearranging his hair in the Napia lobby after a 25-minute power nap, he continued: "With the economy getting better, I've got more and more work and am only getting about five hours of sleep at night. Without this nap, I'd be tired all the time."

Department stores and catalogues now sell "desk pillows." Some Japanese companies have successfully pressed to have nap salon fees covered by health insurance providers, while others are endorsing something long unthinkable here -- in-office napping. On a recent day at Japan's Environmental Ministry, several young workers in the final stretch of their lunch breaks could be seen unabashedly dozing, their cheeks resting on plush towels spread out over their arms. Inside the Tokyo offices of Toyota Motor Corp., afternoon power naps have become commonplace -- particularly because the company switches off the office lights during lunchtime to save energy.

"When we see people napping during lunchtime, we think, 'They are getting ready to put 100 percent in during the afternoon,' " said Paul Nolasco, a Toyota spokesman in Tokyo. "Nobody frowns upon it. And no one hesitates to take one during lunchtime either."

National debate
Images of exhausted executives conked out inside coffeehouses or on buses or subways during long commutes home have long been a fixture of Japan's urban landscape. But the office power nap was anathema to Japan, even as the concept became popular in the United States and Europe. Naohisa Uchimura, a sleep specialist at Kurume University in southern Japan, said that began to change in 2003 after a bullet-train conductor made headlines by nodding off at the controls. Though automatic train mechanisms prevented an accident, the driver's inability to get enough sleep at night started a heated national debate.

"People are realizing that our lack of sleep is actually slowing us down," Uchimura said, adding that Japanese workers get an average of between five and six hours of sleep a night. "To be in top shape well into the evening hours at the office, you need to take a nap."

Japan is actually re-catching nap fever, said Tadao Hori, a sleep researcher at Hiroshima University. Afternoon napping -- particularly among farmers who toiled in the early morning -- was a common practice in ancient Japan, he said. The custom expanded during the 17th century after missionaries from the Iberian Peninsula brought the concept of siestas to Japanese shores.

"I don't know if all the samurais were taking siestas, but I can say that after Japan was exposed to the 'non-siesta' countries in Europe -- England, Germany, France -- the idea of napping gradually became taboo in Japan," Hori said. "Thankfully, that is now changing."

'Changed my life'
It has been to the benefit of the 991 students at Meizen high school, where summer break does not begin until July and where surveys showed most students slept only five to six hours a night. Since the napping program was introduced in June 2005, test scores have markedly increased and reports of students drifting off during class have sharply declined, said the principal, Shinei Otaka.

"You can't compare the lifestyles of these kids to kids back in the States," said Melissa Fabrose, the English teacher at Meizen who is on an exchange program this year from her San Francisco high school. "Most of these kids are waking up around 5:30 or 6 a.m., and lots of them are commuting on public transport. Some of them are traveling more than two hours each way and then spend lots of time studying. They don't have a lot of time to sleep."

Though the afternoon naps at Meizen are optional, they are strongly encouraged. Most students have eagerly seized the opportunity. Masaki Chiba, a 15-year-old freshman who dreams of being an astronomer, said he selected Meizen from eight possible high schools in his district because of the napping program.

"There was a time when I wasn't able to nap because of my commitments with the astronomy club, and I felt like I'd lost my concentration," he said. "It's changed my life."

Special correspondent Akiko Yamamoto contributed to this report.