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The sounds of everyday Japanese life

by Peter Backhaus

Special To The Japan Times

Living in Japan can be quite a noisy experience. Even in my quiet little neighborhood, rarely a day passes without a great variety of sounds being heard. Four days a week the garbage truck fills the air with its most peculiar orugōru (オルゴール, music box) sound. At least once a week, a second-hand object dealer’s car roams the streets in slow motion, with a cheerful female voice from the roof speaker announcing that the not so cheerful-looking man inside will take your old stuff free of charge (there’s usually some hidden cost, by the way).

Street car vendors offer yakiimo (焼き芋, baked sweet potatoes), tofu (豆腐), and rāmen (ラーメン), as well as sekiyu (石油, kerosene) rations for your heater and saodake (竿竹) poles for your laundry. Each of these businesses comes with its own distinctive announcements, such as the two-note rappa (ラッパ, trumpet) call of the tofu man or the hypnotic yakiimo tune that cuts through cold winter nights.

Another thing that is quite impressive about the Japanese soundscape is the daily evening call that comes over the public toranpetto supīkā (トランペットスピーカー, trumpet speakers) to tell children that it’s time to go home. There is a greater variety of these tunes — which can have rather cacophonic effects when you live at the borderline of two administrative areas — but probably most representative is the awesome yūyake koyake (夕焼け小焼け) song.

A couple of years ago two Japanese researchers from Kyushu did a survey in which they asked foreign residents living around Fukuoka about their impression of the Japanese soundscape. In particular, they wanted to know about sounds that were frequently heard in Japan but not in the participants’ home countries. As it turned out, most frequently mentioned were the various sound signals of pedestrian traffic lights — officially referred to by the somewhat unhandy technical term onkyōsōchitsuki shingōki (音響装置付信号機). No. 2, sadly enough, was the roaring of the local bōsōzoku (暴走族, motorcycle gangs). Next came the shouting of street vendors, as mentioned earlier, followed by election campaigners. These include both the regular megaphone politicians in front of the station and their uguisujō (ウグイス嬢, “nightingale ladies”) assistants, who continuously spell out a candidate’s name from their election trucks.

Other sounds that were considered characteristic of Japan were the mīnmīnmīn of the cicadas in late summer, the kan-kan-kan at closed, or closing, level crossings, the deafening roar inside pachinko parlors and game centers, as well as public transport announcements. The researchers were surprised that sounds such as the clapping of geta (下駄, wooden clogs) or the ringing of temple bells were not mentioned at all. The things the foreign residents came up with were of a far more casual nature.

With respect to the sounds at traffic lights, it should be added that a basic distinction is made here between gion-shiki (擬音式, imitative) and merodi-shiki (メロディ式, melody) sounds. Of the former, most frequently heard in and around Tokyo is the so-called kakkō (カッコー, cuckoo) sound and the somewhat less melodic piyo (ピヨ), which imitates ordinary bird song. Incidentally, a kakkō sound usually indicates a crossing over a road that runs from east to west, whereas piyo is used for north-south roads.

The most common merodi-shiki are tōryanse (通りゃんせ), an old Japanese children’s tune, and Kokyō no Sora (故郷の空), a Japanese adaptation of the Scottish children’s song “Comin’ Thro’ the Rye.” Holden Caulfield would have liked this.

In order to find out to what extent Japanese people are actually aware of this fascinating piece of the soundscape, I did a little survey myself. I audio-recorded the sounds of three pedestrian traffic lights outside Takadanobaba Station in Tokyo. The first one was the kakkō, the second the piyo, and the third the Holden Caulfield tune. I played these three files to around 60 students at my university, which is situated in walking distance to Takadanobaba Station, and showed them a Google Earth close up of the area with five pedestrian crossings visible. I then asked them to identify the pair of traffic lights that plays each of the three sounds. The results showed that my students were in fact quite fine-tuned to the music of their everyday life. In all three cases, the largest group of people went for the right answer: 32 percent properly identified the piyo crossing, 34 percent knew where the kakkō could be heard, and no less than 45 percent got the “Comin’ Thro’ the Rye” right.

To be sure, not everyone may appreciate the noisiness of Japanese public spaces, and sōon kōgai (騒音公害, noise pollution) is a frequently discussed issue. On the other hand, a city without all this music in the air just wouldn’t be the same. And it would definitely not be a Japanese city.

  • less-a-moron

    If this article doesn’t make a former resident of japan miss the place nothing will.