This is a translation of a Japanese book. You can buy the original book here.
In 2005, professor Nakajima Yoshimichi published JAPANESE ARE HALF FALLEN (日本人を＜半分＞降りる), which was an amazing 250 page rant against all the signs and pre-recorded announcements that pervade Japanese society. Even better, he is totally aware that his beliefs mark him as a cranky old coot, and he embraces that persona, alternating between reasoned logical discourse and insulting his readers. As you will see, the book starts off as almost comedy- he recounts all the times he has physically and verbally assaulted Japanese officials that are yelling into their megaphones!!!
But then he gets more philosophical in the second half of the book: beyond the simple noise and arrogance of the constant loudspeaker announcements, what are they doing to peoples' minds? Nakajima argues that the "loudspeaker culture" infantilizes the Japanese people, creating a "comforting blanket" of rules and slogans, so that people don't develop any sense of individual responsibility (as adults do in all other countries): people don't take responsibility for their own actions or try to help strangers in trouble, because "The stranger should just read the signs and listen to the announcements and they'll know what to do." Nakajima asserts that, on account of being raised by signs, announcements and slogans, Japanese people don't develop the ability to think critically or develop their own ideas. The constant slogans convince people through sheer repetition, rather than logic and debate. The idea of "consent" is lost.
Nakajima likes to repeat himself, likes to dwell on the same themes with obsessive ferocity, which makes parts of the book dull. But on the other hand, the monotony of the writing drives home his point about the suffering of people who cannot ignore the monotony of their society.
I'll be posting my translation of this book in 5 parts, starting with the introduction, here:
A FICTIONAL RESTAURANT
I’d like you to imagine that you’re in a fictional country. You enter a restaurant and immediately hear loudspeakers giving you instructions, warnings, requests and admonitions, and expressions of gratitude. It starts from the moment you push the door open, and the door says WELCOME! THANK YOU FOR VISITING US AGAIN! And then, from somewhere else, another pre-recorded tape saying, PLEASE WAIT HERE. A WAITER WILL ARRIVE MOMENTARILY. PLEASE TAKE A SEAT IN THE LOBBY. PLEASE WAIT HERE. A WAITER WILL ARRIVE MOMENTARILY. PLEASE TAKE A SEAT IN THE LOBBY. PLEASE WAIT HERE. A WAITER WILL ARRIVE MOMENTARILY. PLEASE TAKE A SEAT IN THE LOBBY.
The tape repeats indefinitely until a waiter finally appears. She smiles politely but says nothing, since the speakers do all the talking: PLEASE FOLLOW THE WAITER, HONORED CUSTOMER. PLEASE WALK BEHIND HER UNTIL YOU ARRIVE AT YOUR SEATS.
And then, when you arrive at your seats, yet another loudspeaker announces, YOUR TABLE NUMBER IS TEN. PLEASE BE SEATED. Then, TABLE TEN! PLEASE PRESS THE BUTTON WHEN YOU’D LIKE THE WAITER TO TAKE YOUR ORDER.
After you order, the waiter silently bows, once again without saying a thing. Instead, the loudspeaker announces, in a high-pitched, too-cute voice, THANK YOU FOR YOUR ORDER, HONORABLE TABLE TEN! PLEASE REMAIN SEATED UNTIL YOUR FOOD ARRIVES. Where is the speaker hidden? You can’t see it.
While you wait for your food, the speaker repeats at regular intervals: TABLE TEN, PLEASE WAIT A WHILE LONGER. YOUR FOOD WILL ARRIVE SHORTLY. TABLE TEN, PLEASE WAIT A WHILE LONGER. YOUR FOOD WILL ARRIVE SHORTLY. TABLE TEN, PLEASE WAIT A WHILE LONGER. YOUR FOOD WILL ARRIVE SHORTLY. TABLE TEN, PLEASE WAIT A WHILE LONGER. YOUR FOOD WILL ARRIVE SHORTLY. TABLE TEN, PLEASE WAIT A WHILE LONGER. YOUR FOOD WILL ARRIVE SHORTLY.
After a few tens (hundreds?) of repetitions, your waiter finally arrives with your god-damn spaghetti and beer: TABLE TEN! THANK YOU FOR WAITING! PLEASE CHECK YOUR FOOD TO MAKE SURE IT IS WHAT YOU ORDERED. TABLE TEN! THANK YOU FOR WAITING! PLEASE CHECK YOUR FOOD TO MAKE SURE IT IS WHAT YOU ORDERED. TABLE TEN! THANK YOU FOR WAITING! PLEASE CHECK YOUR FOOD TO MAKE SURE IT IS WHAT YOU ORDERED.
Then, while you are eating your food, another pre-recorded voice instructs you: PLEASE DON’T SPILL THE FOOD. PLEASE DON’T LEAVE YOUR TABLE WHILE YOU ARE EATING. PLEASE CHEW THROUROUGHLY. DON’T FORGET TO SAY GRACE. DON’T CHEW TOO MUCH. DON’T EAT TOO FAST, AS IT CAN BE UNHEALTHY. LET’S EAT SLOWLY. PLEASE EAT THIS WAY, NOT THAT WAY. DEFINITELY DON’T EAT THAT OTHER WAY.
These instructions continue throughout the whole meal. And that’s not all. Some other customers are eating Japanese food, so they receive a separate set of instructions looping from different loudspeakers: PLEASE BE CAREFUL WHEN PULLING YOUR CHOPSTICKS APART! CHECK TO MAKE SURE YOUR HANDS ARE IN THE APPROPRIATE SPOT, AND THEN PULL STRONGLY APART USING BOTH HANDS. IF YOU WANT SUGAR, PLEASE TURN THE SUGAR JAR UPSIDE-DOWN OVER YOUR FOOD AND SHAKE IT, BUT NOT TOO HARD, AS YOU’LL GET TOO MUCH SUGAR.
To add to the absurdity, another exceptionally loud announcement adds: PLEASE DON’T TALK LOUDLY DURING DINNER AS IT COULD CAUSE ANNOYANCE TO THOSE AT NEIGHBORING TABLES.
What’s more, the entire sequence of announcements repeats with every new customer. As people keep coming in, the announcements begin to overlap: TABLE ELEVEN ! PLEASE PRESS THE BUTTON WHEN YOU’D LIKE THE WAITER TO TAKE YOUR ORDER. TABLE TWELVE! PLEASE PRESS THE BUTTON WHEN YOU’D LIKE THE WAITER TO TAKE YOUR ORDER. TABLE THIRTEEN! PLEASE PRESS THE BUTTON WHEN YOU’D LIKE THE WAITER TO TAKE YOUR ORDER. TABLE FOURTEEN! PLEASE PRESS THE BUTTON WHEN YOU’D LIKE THE WAITER TO TAKE YOUR ORDER.
The announcements, with their inorganic patter, become entangled with one another, making the atmosphere confused and dehumanizing. They begin to drown one another out, so that they lose all meaning. To compensate for this, they are all turned up in volume gradually. They swirl, echo, and careen above your heads, trapped as you are in this artificial, mechanical sound-hell!
But you’d like that restaurant, wouldn’t you? After all, you can’t choose any other kind of restaurant in this country. They all have the same sound environment.
What’s more, even if you are determined to complain to the manager about how you couldn’t enjoy the food, he will definitely not understand your point! “You’re the only one who complains about this. It’s all in your head!” he will say, as if gently setting you straight about something painfully obvious.
“But,” you press your case, “You can’t really defend announcements like ‘Here’s how to pull chopsticks apart’???”
The manager says, “Those announcements are for westerners, who often come here – we have to be kind to them.”
“OK fine,” you say, “But telling us to chew our food thoroughly? Are you mad?”
“Well now,” the manager says, “All our announcements are carefully selected, and that particular one is among the most popular. Parents of small children really like that one, because then they don’t have to scold the children themselves. In fact we get many requests for even more announcements of that sort: EAT YOUR VEGETABLES, or DON’T COMPLAIN ABOUT ‘I-LIKE-THIS-ONE-I-DON’T-LIKE-THAT-ONE’ and so on. We’re considering adding these announcements also.” And so on. The manager can answer all of your questions in this fashion, without batting an eye, as if the announcements were the most natural, logical thing in the world.
My wise readers are no doubt able to imagine all this.
Now I’d like you to imagine what it’s like to be me, in real life: every time I go on the bus, the train (especially shinkansen), the bank, department store, supermarket, parking lot, amusement park, or pretty much anywhere in Japan, I feel like I am in that fictional restaurant.
“What?” you say, “You think Japan is that extreme?” Well, you can go see for yourself if you’d like. Next lunch-break, go to any bank, or to Tokyo train station, and spend ten minutes listening to ALL the announcements. Now see for yourself how many speakers are bombing you with their sonic assaults. See for yourself how the announcements never end. See for yourself how few of them actually say anything useful. Then you’ll know the truth!
EVERY SORT OF SUFFERING IS COMICAL TO SOMEONE OR OTHER
These sort of SOUNDS (in this book I use “sound” in the sense of, “the sounds with which I have a fucking problem.”) which I keep going on and on about . .. what do I propose to do about them? Well, frankly, there seems to be no solution or salvation for those of us whose “sound sensitivity level” is out of step with the majority. I should just give up, I suppose. Only those with an average “sensitivity level” can be comfortable in society. The rest of us either have to go live in a cave, or live in the world while suffering every single minute. We can’t do anything except complain amongst ourselves.
Our sufferings are three in number: FIRST, the actual SOUNDS that assault us at all times, everywhere. SECOND, the fact that nobody understands what we’re upset about causes more suffering. THIRD, our victim hood marks us as social outcasts, as people who are nothing but a burden on society. Our pain (all three varieties) – if it’s thought about at all – is considered funny. We’re the butt of the joke.
“Funny” is not, as you’d assume, the opposite of “serious” or the opposite of “painful.” In fact, they’re all on the same vector. If person A is suffering from serious pain, that’s precisely what makes A funny to person B. The only time “serious” or “painful” is NOT funny is when it’s happening to YOU as well. If anything, sharing someone’s pain makes you TOO empathetic – you lose your sense of logic. But such situations are just an exception to the rule.
Even with something as horrific as the sarin-gas terror attacks, many Japanese people would joke about it: peering into their drinks, saying “Hmmm. Hope this doesn’t have sarin in it!” They joked about it – not because they didn’t understand that the terror victims felt pain – but because they personally weren’t victims of the attacks. This is the way humans deal with all sorts of pain. Even Hiroshima or Nagasaki can be the butt of jokes. Even Auschwitz. A young man committing suicide by jumping off a waterfall can be the butt of the joke. Philosophers and revolutionaries are often the butt of jokes, but no one more than the guy who writes a book with the totally futile, Quixotic premise of getting rid of all the SOUNDS.
(I’m talking about myself here!)
My BODY (in this book I use “body” in the sense of, “that part of me where my sensitivity lives.”) is in a state of psychic pain from all these “Do it like this! Don’t do it like that!” announcements. My BODY instinctively wants to refuse them. Whenever I go out, I use earplugs, and on top of those, I have headphones playing music . . . but still the SOUNDS penetrate! PLEASE DON’T ALL RUN ONTO THE TRAIN AT ONCE, AS IT CAN BE DANGEROUS. PLEASE DON’T ALL RUN ONTO THE TRAIN AT ONCE, AS IT CAN BE DANGEROUS. PLEASE DON’T ALL RUN ONTO THE TRAIN AT ONCE, AS IT CAN BE DANGEROUS. Hearing this sort of thing makes my BODY instinctively fly into a rage. Instinctively I fill with passionate hate, then wilt with embarrassment and powerlessness. The whole experience is exhausting and disgraceful. It’s real true suffering, so bad I almost want to cry. I’m really a sick man, but you treat me like I’m just the butt of a joke?!?
Right now, you’re furrowing your eyebrows, thinking to yourself, “I can’t make heads or tails of what he’s saying!” Well, take a look at your own life. Your mother told you, “Study harder! Have you finished your homework?” day in ,day out, with the same exact words. Do it like this! Don’t do it like that! Ten times a day, even! You got mad, didn’t you? And now, every day your wife nags at you, the same things, over and over: “Are you a lawyer yet? Are you still in bed? You should stop drinking!” Every day and every night! Don’t you start getting mad? Don’t you start to suffer a little? Don’t you want to say, “I get it already! Stop saying that already!” but even if you do, she definitely will not stop. If anything, she will grow even more fierce: “If I stop yelling at you, you’ll have no motivation to ever do anything! You’ll never fix your behavior on your own! If you want me to shut up, you should follow all my commands! Why haven’t you been promoted to section chief yet? Probably because I’m not reminding you enough how important that is! I’ve been too easy on you!”
Launching these violent words at you, salvo after unceasing salvo! You, who are bathed from dusk till dawn in this flood of abuse, wouldn’t you feel disgrace and shame after a while? Well, you know what? You’re funny! Your suffering and shame is funny to me!
HA HA HA HA, motherfucker!
I’ve let my theme expand too much. Let’s return to the matter of the SOUNDS. After a long time of suffering, a long time of activism, and a long time spent considering the situation, I finally had an insight: although our country is flooded with SOUNDS, in the West there are almost none. So in order to properly understand why our country is shaking with such fierce noise, we must first pause to compare our own “civilization level” to others.
The SOUNDS that fill me with a rage (which burns like hydrochloric acid!!!) seem to be central to our culture. Just as everyone likes to see the grand landscapes of nature and exciting scenes of the city, Japanese seem to need an audio scene at all times – what they call a “sound-scape.” So what I’d like to propose is: these meddlesome broadcasts are a unique point of our culture, and can be thought of as “JAPANESE CULTURAL NOISE.”
Here let me pause to address some objections you might have.
Yes, I’m aware that there is a lot of loudspeaker noise in various Asian countries, and the phenomenon is growing in Europe as well. And I’m afraid they might well catch up to us at some point. So I’m absolutely not saying “We should copy the West, the Western sound environment is better.”
This ‘copy the West’ attitude began with the Meiji Restoration. And there’s still a lot of cultural critics who have this attitude. Even in daily life, I’m sorry to say I’m surrounded by such simple-minded people. And I’d like nothing more than to jump on the bandwagon, but my conscience won’t let me. It would be simply negligent to reduce my argument to just: “Copy the Western sound-scape!”
Certainly, as a Japanese citizen, I have a fervent desire to reduce the sound pollution, but I don’t want to be thought unpatriotic by my fellow countrymen. I know the majority doesn’t share my views, and I’m not such a fool that I would try to force everyone to be hyper-sensitive like me.
Of the Japanese who do share my views, I’m aware that most are professors, artists, authors, musicians, architects, in other words, the kind of people who have spent time in the West. To say nothing of translators or other people who make a living speaking Western languages.
When this kind of ‘elite’ person asks for quiet, people instinctively get mad based on ‘elitist source’ of such comments, without really listening to the substance. People naturally think, “Oh, he’s trying to enlighten us dumb masses! What an attitude this guy has!” or, “Being sensitive to the SOUNDS is a mark of being very high-class, so I guess they must think we’re very low-class and insensitive.” This angers people, especially in a country like Japan, where equality is very important. And getting accused of such sentiments cuts me to my very marrow, so I want to be careful here.
“You sure like listening to yourself talk about nothing – I never met a man with so much free time as you!”
“If you like Europe so much, why don’t you move there?”
Honestly, communication is just getting more and more difficult.
This instinctive anger of the MASSES (in this book I use “masses” in the sense of, “the majority of Japanese who are tolerate the SOUNDS, or who think that it has nothing to do with them”) is only natural, I think.
The MASSES – they walk through this daily shower of “behavior management broadcasts”, with their “do this, do that!” messages, quietly, obediently, as if nothing is amiss. And after much reflection, I’ve realized: I can’t deny that I don’t respect the MASSES. Not only that, but if you put it to me that I scorn them, I couldn’t deny that, either. I think I’m in the right, and that’s that. So there it is, I’m arrogant. I want to blame the MASSES, then enlighten them, then lead them to the “correct” way. If that’s not arrogance, what is?
After more self-reflection, I’ve also realized that, in my arrogance, my reckless and indiscriminate blaming of everyone, that I might have hurt some feelings. Probably I’ve hurt a lot of people with my protests and yelling. Even my business card, with its pompous title of “TELECOMUNICATIONS UNIVERSITY PROFESSOR AND PHILOSOPHER” probably repels more people than I can count.
I know this. And I really hate myself for it. But I can’t quit my campaign. Why is that?
It’s not easy for me to keep fighting. And I’m positive that it’s not easy for me to hurt you thick-skinned people. I’m confident that I’m the number-one victim here. I’m positive that my struggle will never end, and confident that I’ll lose.
But, self-consciousness of one’s own futility is a prerequisite for being Don Quixote! It’s this self-consciousness that gives me the courage to continue tilting at the windmill named Japan!
This concludes the introduction to JAPANESE ARE HALF FALLEN. I will be back next time with all of Chapter One.5 comments Tags: nakajima —