The concept of chinmoku wa kin (silence is golden) isn’t a Tokyo thing. Like a lot of other nifty modernities, such as buttered pancakes and the subway system, it was imported into Japan and adopted into city living when the country opened up to the West in the late 19th century.
Up until then, silence or quietness was strictly a samurai domain. For those guys, reticence was cool. For city folk, though, life was too short and too busy; few people had time to waste on saying nothing. Out on the streets, hawkers shouted about the virtues of their wares, while in houses wives chatted about their chores and children. In shops and market stalls, the hum of voices was one continuous drone.
Crows circled the skies to make a commotion; dogs roamed the river banks and barked all night. In the gated brothel districts, geisha played their instruments and sang love songs, while clients ingratiated themselves to the high-end yujo (prostitutes) via raucous conversation. All day, the city existed in a continuous, cacophonous, stir.
Things haven’t changed much since. Tokyoites may understand the value of silence, but there’s a general reluctance to actually practice it. Anyone who flies in from overseas notices the absence of rectitude as it were, as soon as they set foot in Narita airport.
There are continuous and unnecessary announcements in Japanese and English — and a couple of other languages thrown in for good measure — to make sure that you don’t miss your flight, your limousine bus, your taxi, your train, your brain.
You’re reminded to pick up your belongings and not leave anything behind, including your children; to watch your step on the escalators; to mind your arms and other body parts getting caught in the sliding doors of elevators; to check that you have your tickets safely in gripped in your hand or deep inside pockets. Your mobile phone had better be switched off or on “manner mode”; and, if you insist on talking, please do so in designated areas where there are no disabled or elderly people nearby.
Once inside the city, the mere act of walking across the street is accompanied by weird, artificial bird-singing music piping through the traffic lights’ speaker systems. Giant DV screens play unbearable J-pop PV (promotion videos) clips on street corners, inside terminal stations, restaurants and coffee stalls.
And if you’re unfortunate enough to be caught in a crowded kosaten (crossroads) during election season, be prepared to have your senses brutally assaulted by the slowly cruising senkyo ka (election cars) used solely for the megaphonic renko (continuous calling out) of the candidates’ names, often by the white-gloved uguisu jo (nightingale girl), armed with huge (and very effective) microphones. And of course the karasu (crows) circling overhead give no indication of ever shutting up.
It’s no wonder that so many people go through their lives practically jacked into their iPods, though, take it from one who knows, those things can be double-edged.
The problem with filtering out street and engine noises is that you get to hear public announcements extra loud and clear. There you are, happily listening to the guitar strummings of G Love when — bam! — step inside the yellow line, hold onto that escalator rail with all your might and refrain from smoking except in certain designated areas only, yoroshiku onegai shimasu.
On bad days I console myself with a memory of a subway ride in Boston not too long ago. It was late afternoon, and the car was packed with people going home from work. Boston train conductors are never very articulate, but on this day the conductor of the train I was on mumbled something akin to “ness sta’ (next stop).” Those who were changing trains pricked up their ears to listen.
After what seemed like an interminable silence, he came on again. “Ness is…ahhhh…fughed it (forget it).” And people went right back to reading, or chatting quietly with friends, and forgot it.