Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Land of the Rising Volume

I am no Grinch, but I can relate to his sentiments when he curses Whoville, "the noise, noise, noise, noise!" Although people here, not unlike the Whos, smile and sing songs, this is no Whoville, and I will never adjust to the noise noise, noise, noise in Japan.

"In a few minutes we will be landing at Tokyo's Narita International Airport. The local time is 3:45 PM, August 1." Now that is an internationally familiar sound bite. The blaring sounds that would follow me everyday since that initial 1994 landing would become an adjustment in progress, and I haven't adjusted, let alone progressed. In sharp contrast to Americans, Japanese are generally reserved, and on the quiet side. I imagine a history of living in small quarters makes one innately respectful of guarding some level of privacy in public spaces. People tend to use library voices if they converse at all on trains or buses, and I have no personal experiences in line at the bank or the post office, or supermarket when the person behind you comments on the "big game last night." The small talk side of life here is muted in comparison to the States, yet, this politely reserved population is living among the world's largest, loudest choir. Everything, every were seems to blast out its unique theme song, jingle, or pre-recorded announcement.

From childhood, I can recall the ice cream truck, and standard emergency sirens and even the hokey 4th of July wake-up call to come to the parade in my hometown. Yet here, I can go through and entire day having conversations with everything I come in touch with except humans. The sound invasion starts before breakfast: If I leave the refrigerator door ajar for more than it takes to pour a glass of juice, I'm politely reminded to "gently shut the door, please." The slow cooker announces, "the rice is ready," and the bath chimes in to let me know that it's filled to the ideal water level and the temperature is just right. The gas heater has a different tune when it's running low on fuel from when it could use a cleaning, and it always keeps me posted on its needs.

At 8 AM the gates are open for the megaphone armored trucks that roam the neighborhood. If you can remember the different jingles, you can save yourself the trip from trying to dash out to catch the traveling bakery when instead you find yourself in line for a fresh catch mackerel or hand pressed tofu. The sweet potato truck could be the Grammy of truck sales in Japan: it has verses, and tells the story of the journey the potato took from root to open pit fire, which is humming and crackling in the back of the truck. Pot stickers, ramen noodles, all in harmony through the streets in case I need a bite in between gently shutting the fridge and scrubbing the gas heater filter.

Time for a shower, and the shower beep beep beeps when it warms up to the fixed temperature setting. It is unnerving to hear any kind of a alarm in this vulnerable position, but I can be relieved that it wasn't the fish monger alerting me to the fresh catch while I'm attempting to mentally escape the public sound off while rinsing off.

Everyday is some round of trash or recycle collection, each pick up with its own theme. It would make for quite a symphony if the paper, bottle, can pick up came at once, but instead we get featured solos. For the "big trash," a flatbed truck comes through at 3 miles an hour blaring out its pre-recorded offer to collect old bikes stereos, TVs and any miscellaneous electronic equipment for no charge. I am often tempted to pay them to just bring the volume down a notch. Trucks are programmed with a simplified chorus of "It's a Small World After All," when they go into reverse to warn you they could be backing up in your direction. Indeed, it's a Loud World After All. If an election is around the corner, you can experience the full treatment of an open bed truck circling the neighborhood with "campaign" girls donning uniforms have microphones pitching their candidate. This is an 8 AM to 8 PM job, and if I had voting rights, I would not vote for any candidate that I can hear haunting in my sleep like an overplayed 80s song.

Any normally mundane errand can be spiced up thanks to a little nostalgia. Store background soundtracks provide a skip down memory lane on a daily basis. I really feel empowered when I pop into a 7-11 to pick up a Coke to Sinatra's "My Way." It also puts a pep in my step when stop to fill up the tank and the gas station is serenading me with the Carpenter's "On Top of the World." These are old standbys. Yet, supermarkets at closing time are in a league of their own. Five minutes prior to closing, in lieu of an, "in just a few minutes, the store will be closing, please take your final purchases to the register at this time," announcement that I sounded off in my cashier days, Auld Lang Syne streams in over the loud speakers. The first few times, I admit, I looked around for someone to kiss, or at least for a tuxedo clad employee to hand me a plastic flute glass of champagne, but I slowly adjusted the fact that this is the way we bring produce shopping to a close in Japan.

We had a 6:00 dinner call growing up. It was as low brow as my mother coming to the front door and calling out to us kids to come home. However, Japan hits the high notes with its classic public service call, unique from city to city across the nation, which sounds off at 4:30 PM in winter and or 5:30 PM in the summer. Speakers throughout town ignite a song signaling the children to swiftly exit the parks and playgrounds, and a verbal safety message follows reminding them to carefully make their way home. In my early years in Japan, a harmless practical joke among colleagues helped me appreciate this musical noise making custom on a new scale. Elden was a marching band director from Hawaii, on a fixed term teaching contract in Koshigaya. He had his clarinet in Japan, and like any gifted musician he could play by ear, mimicking tunes on demand or perhaps in this case, on command.

It was the perfect weather that late fall day for kids to play outside, and thus we gathered in his 4th floor apartment after school. We tested the maximum weight of the veranda overlooking a neighborhood park and filed out onto the balcony like the ol' elephants in a Volkswagen bug gag. At exactly 4:25 PM, 5 minutes prior to the city sponsored pre- recorded version, Elden played a live arrangement of the "time to go" song. We stood and watched in anticipation, and the targets took the bait. The kids stopped, looked up and around, and dutifully scrammed off on their bikes to safely head home for the day. We quickly took refuge inside and were overcome with a giddy feeling of satisfaction on our experiment accomplished.

The beeps, alarms, megaphones, noise makers, and songs, songs, songs do take a toll on my noise pollution comfort level. However, regarding my attitude toward all the racket, like the Grinch, my heart grew three sizes that day.


  1. Kathryn, I could write a companion post to this about all the times we've left laundry wrinkling in the washer or food drying up in the microwave because we had gotten SO programmed in Japan to rely on these electronic reminders!

  2. I would love to read the reverse dependency shock. Does your bath water run into the living room before you realize it's time for a soak?