active maas

The blog of thriller writer Robert Maas

Ain’t noise pollution

At five o’clock every evening, the open spaces of Tokyo reverberate with the blandest tune ever composed, broadcast from all the exterior loudspeakers the government uses in times of emergency. This is noise pollution Japanese style, but it’s far from the worst.

Actually, I quite like the five o’clock tune. It’s nice to be reminded that the day is drawing to a close, and it sure beats a factory siren for perking you out of the afternoon doldrums.

In my travels around Japan, it’s also interesting to hear the tunes used by different municipalities. An aural cultural flavor, if you like, on a par with their colors of bus.

The ostensible purpose of the five o’clock tune is to tell kids it’s time to go home. The loudspeakers are positioned in the little squares of dirt that Tokyo rather majestically calls parks and marks on its maps in green.

The speakers also make handy PA systems when the local community hosts a festival (matsuri) in the park. But their main purpose, it seems to me, is simply to announce that all is well: we just survived another day, and in weary comfort in that fact we can begin to wrap up our lives for the night ahead.

When it comes to noise pollution, Japan is hardly exceptional, and I’m not claiming it is. Like all cities, Tokyo suffers from traffic noise, whether it’s the drone of cars and trucks on those two-tier roads built to shuttle visitors to the last Olympics, or the swoosh of a passing shinkansen on its elevated railroad.

But Tokyo is a particularly close-packed city, and as I’ve mentioned before in my post Disposable flotsam, houses here are generally little more than wooden shacks.

They’re noise transparent, meaning that when you’re sitting in your living room or apartment you get a full audible panorama of the human and vehicular traffic moving around you. Tokyo more or less shuts down at night, so the noise eventually dies away leaving just the occasional throaty roar of a passing motorbike with its silencer sawn off.

Tokyo is a mixed-up jumble of teeming human life, free from such inconveniences as zoning. Factories and workshops are stirred in at random among the houses. It’s also a constant building site, so there’s always construction noise, though every site displays a monitor to show whether or not it’s beneath acceptable limits.

Anti-noise laws do exist in Japan, but in my experience the building sites are the only ones that abide by them.

In summer, Tokyo can be deafening—and I mean this literally—with cicadas. Where parks and roadsides actually have real live green in them, they’re full of the little chirping beggars. Have a single cicada stray onto your balcony and the metallic rasp can be so loud you can’t even hear each other talk.

But Japan likes its cicadas for the same reason, I suspect, it likes its messy, smelly gingko trees: they’re a sign of the coming and passing of the season.

Summer is also a time for those matsuri, and in particular the boisterous processions in which the local Shinto icons are dusted off and go on an excursion around the area to see what’s new in the neighborhood.

Heaved street to street by crowds of chanting and singing revelers, they’re quintessentially Japanese. Unfortunately my wife and I always have to reposition our potted plants around the perimeter of our property when it’s time for a matsuri since otherwise the processions use our house, conveniently on a corner, as a pitstop and we spend the following fortnight picking cigarette butts out of the narrow trench of soil my wife calls a garden.

Matsuri are fun. Less fun are the recycling trucks that drive around every weekend, blasting loudhailer invitations to haul out our unwanted electrical appliances for disposal at less cost than the government recycling scheme. You can hear them way down the road, from dawn on a Sunday morning, haranguing poor sleepy families on their one day of rest.

Less fun still is election season, which seems to be constant, when the roads are fender to fender with loudhailer vans from the thirty or so candidates squabbling over our inconsequential patch of suburbia. I tend to shout back incomprehensibly at them, adding to the din.

And then there are the extremist organizations, immune to any kind of police scrutiny, who cruise around blaring patriotic songs all day long and remind me just how far Japan still has to go in its rehabilitation.

I generally, but not always, resist the urge to dance when they pass me by with a particularly rousing anthem about why Japan deserves to rule the world. These are scary people, with links to the mafia, and won’t stand disrespect from foreigners.

Some loudhailer trucks are welcome. On a winter’s evening, the electric croon of the local baked potato seller is as evocative in Japan as the chimes of an ice cream truck are in a western summer. For some reason (and I assume it’s legislation) there’s no such thing as an ice cream truck in Japan, at least not that I’ve ever encountered, even though you’d expect one to be phenomenally attractive making the rounds of those dirt-square parks and on hand during the matsuri.

Hint to budding entrepreneurs: bring ice cream trucks to Tokyo.

When it comes to mothering its people, the five o’clock tune is just one of the ways Japan creates a community. Those park loudspeakers are also used to give us sundry declarations, such as that government facilities will be closed early the following day.

There’s also, to give just one example, the wooden block clicking of the man who walks around the neighborhood late at night, warning us not to leave our fires unattended.

And here’s the other side of Japanese noise pollution: the Japanese people don’t seem to care. It’s not even another example of ‘shoganai,’ that mindset that you just have to bear something unbearable because there’s nothing you can do about it.

Just as Japanese people have conditioned themselves not to see eyesores that blemish their natural beauty, or the tangles of overhead wire that fill their urban streets, they seem to have taught themselves no longer to hear the noise that forms the constant backdrop to their lives.

My favorite example of this comes from one of the first times I visited Japan. I was staying with a Japanese friend in a town near Nagoya and, since it was a bright afternoon, we set out for a stroll around the streets.

Suddenly a helicopter swooped in overhead, clattering low over the houses. From loudhailers attached to its base, a deafening voice began screeching at us in a stentorian manner I associate with North Korean TV announcements.

I didn’t understand spoken Japanese then, and thought it might be a tsunami warning. Time to run for the hills. But my friend seemed not even to notice it.

“What’s it saying?” I asked her.

“What’s what saying?”

“That helicopter.” By now it had moved off and was screeching at another part of the town.

She paused, surprised, as if she had never noticed it before, and listened for a while. “It’s reminding us not to drop litter,” she said.


Hey! Hey you! Robert Maas’s latest novel Hemisphere is available to buy in six installments at Amazon. For details and links, see the Hemisphere page.


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