Meeting Narcolepsy

Nakagawa's career Karoshi

February 17, 2009: 1:05 PM ET

nakagawaI have to say that I feel pretty bad for Shoichi Nakagawa right now. Just a few minutes ago, it was announced that the now-former Japanese Finance Minister had resigned after his bizarre performance at the G7 conference in Rome this past weekend.

If you watch the video, you see a business executive, completely exhausted and a little bit drunk, attempting to pull off another boring presentation without falling face down into his cream of wheat. He just picked the wrong boring presentation in which to lose it, not to mention that nothing happens in the world right now without it goes up on YouTube immediately.

Let me speculate. The Japanese are among the great iron men of business. They commute long, long hours to their jobs. The guys I have known drink prodigious amounts of scotch and smoke like fiends. One year not long ago I flew to Japan on a morning flight. The Japan Air lounge was full of Japanese businessmen slamming back the Suntory and wolfing down their smokes at 6 a.m. I say this with tremendous respect. 

The Japanese are, to my knowledge, the only culture that has an exact word for the concept of Death from Overwork. They call it Karoshi. Now flip to  Nakagawa in that hot little conference room in Rome, trying to stay awake, suffering under the weight of jet lag, wine and cold medicine. How far was he from total unconsciousness? How much partying had he done in the Eternal City the night before? How amazingly BORING was the discussion in that room? And in the end, if your body really wants to go to sleep, is there anything at all you can do to stop it?

I'm telling you. There really isn't. Not when the room is close, your veins are full of a variety of popular substances, all sold over the counter, you've had maybe four hours of sleep in the last three days and the discussion is both aggravating and tedious. In that case, Karoshi might be a consummation devoutly to be wished.

Brief story: a few decades back I attended a presentation at NASA in Florida. My buds and I had been out rampaging through the night spots of Orlando until 3 a.m. or so. Back then the whole idea of free scotch was new to me, my body was only just beginning to turn the corner, and I truly knew no limits. When I woke up the next morning I was still half in the bag. My head felt like somebody had wrapped it in very soft cotton and then hit it repeatedly with a mallet.

I slept on the bus out to the Kennedy Space Center. We were then marched through some security area and ushered into a hot little room where we all sat on uncomfortable folding chairs and watched some guy with bars on his chest give a talk about safety, quality and the popular concept of the day, "Getting it right the first time." 

I knew I was in trouble when he showed up with a foot-tall stack of color overheads under his arm. That was in the days before PowerPoint. The lights went down. The first overhead went up. His voice droned. And my eyes would not stay open. "I'll just rest them a little bit," I thought. And then... lethe.

Throughout that horrible 90 minutes, my pal next to me kept jamming me in the ribs with his elbow, harder and harder when it became necessary. Afterward, he took me aside and said, "You can fall asleep in meeting if you have to, man. But you can't snore." I've lived by those words ever since.

Mr. Nakagawa may be the worst Finance Minister ever. Japan's economy is right now in lusty competition with ours for the title of Worst in the World. That doesn't stop me from taking a moment as he leaves the world stage to bow my head in empathy.  I, too, suffer on occasion from terminal bouts of meeting narcolepsy. So far, thank goodness, I've been able to pick the meetings I sleep through with some care.

But tomorrow, who knows? The way most meetings are going these days, sleep is an attractive option.

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