Sounds of Japan
I have written before about the sounds of Japan. Many are ones that I would probably miss if/when I leave this country, and I have tried to compare them to some of the sounds I remember growing up in small town Canada.
But not all, because Japan is also a country with almost zero sense of aural privacy, which makes it an annoyingly loud, heavily noise-polluted land. Japan does not possess or share a Western sense of private space versus public space. If you enter any train station, or stand on any train platform, or get on any train and you are endlessly bombarded by repeated, gratuitous and unnecessary announcements: We are approaching Station Y; Don’t forget your bags; Don’t forget your umbrella; Please turn off your mobile phone when you are near a Courtesy Seat; Remember, don’t rush to get off/on the train; The doors on the right side will open; Please don’t block the aisle with your feet; Be considerate of other passengers; Report unaccompanied baggage or anything suspicious to train station personnel; Report any lost or stolen items; Please follow the rules; Thank you for traveling with us today; Have a nice day, etc.
But even without leaving my own home the noise from outside intrudes. What I as a Westerner think is my private space Asians are apt to think still falls into the public realm. Politicians roam the streets in their campaign cars during election campaigns blasting their messages to all the neighborhoods - often in direct and blatant violation of the Election Law which limits campaigning to the hours of eight in the morning and eight in the evening. The boys’ baseball team at the public high school directly across the street from my apartment starts its Saturday and Sunday morning practices promptly at 7:00 a.m. every weekend. But I often feel it is more group shouting practice than actual baseball practice. The road maintenance crew is outside jack hammering at 6:00 a.m.
One explanation for the paucity of aural privacy here is that traditional architecture featured thin paper walls through which everything could be heard. So it is said that in olden times people were trained to modestly ignore sounds on the other side of the paper, and that this became a part of the culture - a meme embedded in the psyche. It means that Japanese don’t/can’t notice their own noise. This explanation doesn’t wash with me, but there you have it.
On New Year’s Day this year I remembered to pay attention to the first sound I heard from outside. At New Year’s in the Orient the first things of the New Year bear a special significance - or at least a special allure: the first going to the shrine (called “hatsumode” in Japanese); the first cooked rice; the first hot meal; the first sake; the first day of work, etc. The first sound I heard - and it was just after I got out of my futon - was the wail of an ambulance’s siren on the main thoroughfare nearby. “That’s not a good sign,” I thought. Later in the day I heard ambulance sirens more than once more. But that’s not because it was New Year’s. It’s just always like that. Tokyo is a big place. Many cars, many people, many accidents; many elderly. Plus there is a general hospital just 200-meters down the hill from my apartment.
In the Fall when the weather turns cool, and then throughout the winter there is the yaki imou man - baked sweet potatoes sold mostly at night from small trucks on street corners. The trucks have wood burning stoves mounted in the back and a taped sing-song call of the man’s delicious wares is blasted from speakers mounted on the vehicle’s roof, “Delicious baked sweet potatoes here!!”
Then there is the bamboo laundry pole selling guy. I hear and see these mostly in the summer months, but sometimes in the winter, too. They drive slowly around neighborhoods in small trucks with long bamboo laundry drying poles in the back. From the roofs of their trucks a sing-song message is blasted to housewives to come out and trade their recyclable paper for bamboo poles. “Takeyaaaaaaaaa saodakeeeeeeeee! Takeyaaaaaaaa saodakeeeeeeee!
Then there is the tofu guy. Every afternoon, before dinner time, the tofu man patrols neighborhoods on his bicycle, blowing a cheap tin whistle - it sounds like a cereal box kazoo that I remember from my childhood. I ate and ate my Captain Crunch and saved up the box tops to send them in to the company in order to receive a kazoo in the mail as a kind of prize for feasting on Captain Crunch. The tofu man has a shop, but he also patrols the neighborhood regularly, delivering fresh tofu right to the door.
In winter there is the nightly fire patrol. Remember that fire is one of the traditional disasters to plague Japan, which has always featured timber construction. Even in today’s modern cities volunteers patrol neighborhoods on foot late at night loudly banging together two wooden clappers and calling out, “Hinoyoujin!!” “Be careful of fire!”
Around five in the afternoon in most neighborhoods throughout the country loud speakers atop schools or other public buildings broadcast a loud message telling children to go home. “It’s time to go home now.” Do they really need reminding? Is anyone really so foolish? Still, it is one of the expected sounds of Japanese life.
Right now as I am typing I can hear the gyoza guy outside, patrolling the streets in his truck selling fresh Chinese dumplings for dinner.
I think that Japanese like the feeling that they are being taken care of, like children. Government, school, doctors and hospitals, police and fire officers are the primary vehicles of such oversight. Similar oversight in most Western countries would probably just get the backs up of the entire citizenry. Being noisy about it is just a way of confirming to themselves how much care they are taking of each other.