The Japanese Art of Lounging: The Goro Goro
2/19/2020 | Rebecca Huval
It began slowly, then all at once. At first, I’d hit the snooze button and linger in bed until the next alarm. Then I began ignoring the piercing siren several times in a row as if it were a nagging mother who didn’t realize how quickly I could get ready.
Eventually, I went rogue. I stopped using my alarm altogether, rising whenever I felt damn-well ready — often an hour late.
My struggle with rising on time is the definition of a first-world problem. Back when I was a full-time freelancer, I’d get up each morning with a rush of adrenaline, often before my alarm. But, when I got a full-time job with a flexible schedule, I lost control over my shuteye.
Enter the Goro Goro
Recently after, a friend who went to college in Tokyo taught me about “goro goro,” the Japanese tradition of rolling around and luxuriating in bed. (It’s also the word for the sound of a cat purring.)
When I heard the term, I felt a toe-curling warmth. Merely knowing that sleeping in was a recognized cultural phenomenon made me feel better about clocking extra hours in bed. Maybe it’s only we industrious Americans who judge late-risers?
To find out if I was onto something, I reached out to Brigitte Steger, a senior lecturer in modern Japanese studies at the University of Cambridge who’s researched sleeping habits in Japan.
Steger explained that goro goro isn’t quite the same thing as “sleeping in,” at least not in the clear-cut way that Americans understand it.
While someone might sleep in to catch up on Zzzs, goro goro is more about dozing off or lazing about in the space between wakefulness and rest. And people practice goro goro at all times of day, typically while wearing pajamas and lying on a type of grass flooring called a tatami mat.
Goro goro mirrors the architecture of the Japanese household, where the sleeping and living areas aren’t fully separate.
The Goro Goro and Japanese Culture
Many families sit around on soft flooring, where they eat as well as enjoy repose. In America, by contrast, we set strict boundaries between work and leisure, including in the design and use of space in our homes.
Differentiating between our sleeping and waking lives is a relatively recent development — it emerged in Europe and America during the Industrial Revolution, but didn’t become the norm everywhere.
“It’s the bourgeoisie’s way of having sleep in a private place,” Steger said. “It has to do with working hours, which were more strictly separated from leisure.”
In the 1970s, Steger explained, goro goro became an activity associated with Japan’s working poor, who couldn’t afford a pricier hobby than lying around, doing nothing.
During this period, Japan was seen as having weaker consumer spending than the US and Europe — and this was thought to hold the country back economically. “So they promoted consumer culture rather than sleeping in,” Steger said.
In time, Japan came around to the same “work hard, play hard” ethos embraced on the other side of the Pacific. By the 1990s, Steger said, consumer spending was a bygone concern for Japan’s thriving economy, and goro goro had lost its reputation as a low-income pastime. Today, people of all classes do it without giving much thought to its socioeconomic implications.
A Cultural Relationship With Sleep
Apparently, when Westerners teaching English in Japan ask students about their hobbies, they get surprised by one, fairly common answer: sleep. “Lying around, sort of sleeping, sometimes not sleeping, is more of a hobby,” Steger explained.
It’s possible that the Japanese put sleep on a pedestal because so many people get very little of it, Steger said. Take “inemuri”, the practice of napping during meetings and class, which Steger has also studied extensively.
Some Japanese workers semi-conk-out during the daytime, but it’s perceived and practiced far differently than the American power nap. Inemuri is less about catching up on sleep in a concentrated window, and more like something between sleep and wakefulness that just… happens. Akin to goro goro.
“I think of this (as) similar to daydreaming — like you’re actually involved in whatever activity, but you’re sleeping to save time,” Steger said, “and that’s much more tolerated in Japan because it’s not regarded as sleep.”
Beyond merely dozing, a love for actual sleep is also embedded in Japanese culture. Steger analyzed Japanese domestic travel guides and found something interesting: The travel guides promoted active consumption, such as spending money on spas, restaurants, and hotels.
But these pastimes were all preludes to a less effortful main event. “Sleeping (during) or after the trip was one of the most popular things to do,” Steger said.
Is Lounging Around Bad For You?
I wondered if there was anything unhealthy about my recent discovery of the snooze button, so I reached out to Rafael Pelayo, a sleep doctor at Stanford Health Care in Palo Alto, California.
“I have no problem with people lounging in bed if you have the time and enjoy it. What could be nicer?” he said. “Sleeping in, though, implies that you’re sleeping longer than usual.”
It’s difficult to truly sleep in, Pelayo added, unless you’ve built up a large sleep debt. So the only unhealthy thing about dozing through an alarm (or four) is that it typically happens when you’re sleep-deprived — and sleep deprivation is unequivocally bad for you.
I, on the other hand, am not waking up late to compensate for a sleep deficit. Instead, I’m just lying in bed, half-awake, basking in the coziness of it all. But why do I do it, when I didn’t before? And why have I had so much trouble kicking the habit?
“There’s a saying: Your sleep is a reflection of your life, and your life is a reflection of your sleep,” Pelayo said.
“You need to always wonder, what are you waking up for? You’re going to wake up one way if it’s Saturday, or if it’s a job you hate, or if you have an early morning flight, or you’re worried about missing that flight. You need to think about if you’re living to sleep or sleeping to live.”
I told Pelayo that my sleep patterns shifted when I gave up freelancing for a full-time job.
“You’re a hunter: If you don’t hunt, you don’t eat,” Pelayo said. “And things changed when you had a more predictable income source.”
His explanation made sense to me. I’d given up freelancing because I thought a steady job would improve my quality of life, but I missed the rush of seeking out assignments and being my own boss. So, with that realization, I gave three weeks’ notice at work and prepared to resume my hunter-gatherer lifestyle of waking up with the sun.
I have mere days left at my job, and I’ve been aggressively ramping up my side gigs. This morning, for the first time in a year, I bounded out of bed nearly an hour before my alarm. I was finally excited to write this story.
I can always carve out time for some midday goro goro if I start to miss lingering in bed.