CHAPTER ONE : A SOCIETY OF “PICKLED SOUNDS.”
WHAT IS THE “CULTURE OF NOISE?”
The topic of this book is not things such as “airplane noise” or “noisy neighbors” (things which are officially recognized as “sound pollution”). I’m focusing on things such as the loudspeaker warnings that accompany escalators and moving walkways, the announcements inside train stations, trains, and busses, the sales patter of loudspeakers inside department stores, the constantly looping tapes playing at bank cash machines and parking lots, the background music and wireless “muzak” played in shopping malls or nightlife districts, and the general loudspeaker output that seems to completely cover our country in a blanket of broadcasts.
Especially, PLEASE BE CAREFUL AND CHECK TO SEE IF YOU’VE LEFT ANY LUGGAGE IN THE LUGGAGE RACK! PLEASE REFRAIN FROM USING YOUR CELL-PHONE ON THE TRAIN! PLEASE WATCH OUT FOR TRAFFIC WHEN YOU STEP OFF THE BUS! PLEASE DON’T ALL RUSH ON TO THE TRAIN AT ONCE, AS IT’S DANGEROUS!
This whole category of “Please don’t / please refrain from / please watch out for. ..” messages are the most meddlesome and unnecessary.
I find that I am less and less able to tolerate them. Already the limit of my endurance has been reached. I began my “anti-noise” campaign seven years ago, when I started complaining to the bus company. At that time, I was working at a university, and this particular bus company had a special bus to take students to and from the station to the campus. I tape-recorded all the messages playing on the bus’ loudspeakers, and then analyzed them mathematically. Based on this analysis, I wrote a letter to the president of the bus company, informing him that fully ninety percent of the messages were not helpful. But I miscalculated.
WHEN YOU WANT TO GET OFF, PLEASE PRESS THE BUZZER . . . . THE BUS MIGHT SHAKE, SO PLEASE HOLD ON TO THE LEATHER STRAPS. . . PLEASE SAVE THE ‘SILVER SEATS’ FOR SENIOR CITIZENS. . . . since there were no more than four stops on the entire route, and all the passengers were university students, these messages were also useless, so the real total is closer to a hundred percent.
But the bus company didn’t change a thing.
I’ve spoken to many officials, and done lots of demonstrations all over the place, but almost no one seems to understand what I’m really talking about. Ten, nay, a hundred times, I’ve met complete resistance.
Every day, ten times a day, the speakers in the malls blare this message:
THE FINAL DEADLINE FOR FILING YOUR TAXES IS MARCH 15TH. PLEASE DON’T FORGET TO SET ASIDE MONEY WITH WHICH TO PAY YOUR TAXES.
THE FINAL DEADLINE FOR FILING YOUR TAXES IS MARCH 15TH. PLEASE DON’T FORGET TO SET ASIDE MONEY WITH WHICH TO PAY YOUR TAXES.
THE FINAL DEADLINE FOR FILING YOUR TAXES IS MARCH 15TH. PLEASE DON’T FORGET TO SET ASIDE MONEY WITH WHICH TO PAY YOUR TAXES.
THE FINAL DEADLINE FOR FILING YOUR TAXES IS MARCH 15TH. PLEASE DON’T FORGET TO SET ASIDE MONEY WITH WHICH TO PAY YOUR TAXES.
THE FINAL DEADLINE FOR FILING YOUR TAXES IS MARCH 15TH. PLEASE DON’T FORGET TO SET ASIDE MONEY WITH WHICH TO PAY YOUR TAXES.
Even those of us who DO set aside money have to hear this reminder ten times a day forever? I protested to the Tax Ministry, but was told, “We’re absolutely not going to change it.”
The loudspeakers that violently blare THIS WEEK IS ‘SUMMER FIRE PREVENTION WEEK’ THIS WEEK IS ‘SUMMER FIRE PREVENTION WEEK’ THIS WEEK IS ‘SUMMER FIRE PREVENTION WEEK’ THIS WEEK IS ‘SUMMER FIRE PREVENTION WEEK’ THIS WEEK IS ‘SUMMER FIRE PREVENTION WEEK’ THIS WEEK IS ‘SUMMER FIRE PREVENTION WEEK’ THIS WEEK IS ‘SUMMER FIRE PREVENTION WEEK’ – even though they only do it for one week, their sudden, deafening volume and sheer meaningless-ness caused me to telephone the fire department and complain. They told me, “We’re absolutely not going to change it.”
On the subways, there are announcements like, PLEASE STOP PARKING BICYCLES NEAR THE STATION WHERE THEY ARE A NUISANCE TO OTHERS! and other warnings of crimes which are totally unrelated to actually riding subways. I complained in person at the local police box, only to be told, “Go away, we definitely will not change it.”
I went to the offices of the department stores and train stations, to complain about the overabundance of messages such as, THE ESCALATOR IS ABOUT TO BEGIN SO PLEASE WATCH YOUR STEP. THE ESCALATOR IS ABOUT TO BEGIN SO PLEASE WATCH YOUR STEP. THE ESCALATOR IS ABOUT TO BEGIN SO PLEASE WATCH YOUR STEP. THE ESCALATOR IS ABOUT TO BEGIN SO PLEASE WATCH YOUR STEP. They also told me, “Go away, we definitely will not change it.”
In the public parks, there are already too many redundant signs saying, PLEASE KEEP AN EYE ON YOUR BELONGINGS, AS SOMEONE MIGHT STEAL THEM. Nevertheless, loudspeakers blare this same message at huge volumes throughout the day. I went to the park management office to beg them to stop, only to be told, “Go away, we definitely will not change it.”
I have a hypothesis that many people feel the way that I do about the noise situation. But most people only consider “noise problems” to be things like train motors, jet engines, and noisy neighbors.
In my career as an activist, I’ve received requests for help from over 100 people. But even the overwhelming majority of my “fans” seem to misunderstand my mission! They’re suffering because of dogs, sirens from the hospital next door, noise from the elementary school next door, and so on. In other words, things that are in their neighborhood.
What concerns me, on the other hand, are sounds that invade from outside the neighborhood: the “safety announcements” blared from police and fire trucks, the “speech vans” of politicians during election season, and the mis-use of the neighborhood “emergency evacuation” loudspeakers to blare everyday announcements.
Recently the invasions of traveling salesmen whose trucks blare advertisements for screen doors, laundry equipment, and fried potatoes – this has gone down, because of public outcry. But where is the outcry about the escalator announcements, or the delivery trucks whose speakers roar, I’LL BE TURNING LEFT SOON SO PLEASE BE CAREFUL! NOW I’M TURNING LEFT! STILL TURNING LEFT! BE CAREFUL, HERE I GO TURNING LEFT! or the banks, who have a tape of THANK YOU AGAIN FOR HONORABLY COMING TO SUCH-AND-SUCH BANK AGAIN! THANK YOU AGAIN FOR HONORABLY COMING TO SUCH-AND-SUCH BANK AGAIN! THANK YOU AGAIN FOR HONORABLY COMING TO SUCH-AND-SUCH BANK AGAIN! THANK YOU AGAIN FOR HONORABLY COMING TO SUCH-AND-SUCH BANK AGAIN! playing on endless repeat?!? It’s enough to bring me to the brink of neurosis! This puts me in the extreme of the extremists, I suppose.
Meanwhile, 99 percent of Japanese don’t care about any of this. Nobody cares about my pain and suffering. You all think you’re so rational and calm, just because you have a different sensitivity level than me. I don’t have any real response to you. But I still have a thing I really want to complain about in the next chapter!
INDIVIDUAL SPEECH VS. INSTITUTIONAL SPEECH
I don’t like people who take an intellectual, theoretical interest in problems which don’t concern them personally. Nor do I like those who simply scream, “It hurts! It hurts!” without analyzing their problems. I simply believe people should express their suffering in a logical, and accurate manner. Even if you think I’m too sensitive about noises, I’d like you to acknowledge that this issue of “people who don’t express suffering in a logical manner” is a serious issue that should not be covered up.
My experiences are personal, the experiences of one individual. But how to convince people that individual experiences can constitute a social problem which affects everybody? That’s the aim of this book, in a nutshell.
On this topic, the responses of people who are bound hand and foot by organizational rules are neither illuminating or even interesting. Whether such people agree with me or disagree, either way I find their responses unsatisfying. Why is that? Because they’ve been trained to think exclusively in terms of organizational problems. Even if they agree there is a problem, they can’t deal on an individual level.
They never ask themselves, “What is the right thing to do?” or “What is the right thing to say?”
For example, I went to my son’s elementary school to complain about the loudspeakers used during PE class, which the whole neighborhood can hear, and this is what he said:
“Aww! Yeah, the speakers are loud enough to make your head hurt, aren’t they? We certainly should think about these issues, ha ha ha.”
My heart cried out in protest: “What is there to think about?!? You have no intention of turning down the speakers, do you? Quit ‘agreeing’ with me in this phony way!!!!”
When I hear this kind of patronizing double-speak, I get so mad, my skin crawls like there are worms writhing over my whole body! This kind of double-speak, (which I’ll henceforth call INSTITUTIONAL SPEECH), serves no purpose but to duck responsibility.
Although it is considered “acceptable” by society, considered harmless, it rots our morals. It gets us to stop thinking. And when we are assaulted with it day in and day out, it saps our will to resist. The reason is, these guys have framed the debate so that protest is not an option. If one persists in complaining, they will say, “Well now, let’s take the long view. Let’s take several years to do a very thorough study, including all points of view.”
I have to beat a hasty retreat when showered with this kind of fungal institutional speech.
Another example: a worker for Keio Subway company told me, “Well now, sensei, we respect your opinion and value your follow-up questions.” What jabbering nonsense! I thought to myself: “If that’s your ‘respect,’ then it’d be more helpful if you were ‘against’ me! Put up your dukes!”
And then there are the railway or bank employees, who are fond of saying, “Personally I agree with you fully, but it’s the organization, you see . . . “
This sort of statement, if you use one single nerve cell, you can clearly see is nothing more than “Self-defense speech.”
If I respond lucidly with: “Well, it’s precisely because you’re in the organization that you can have a bigger impact than I. And you have the most to gain by complaining, since you have to listen to that noise day in and day out.” They invariably reply with, “Huh?” They don’t understand the irony at all.
Rather than the baffling “agreements” of “institutional speech”, I much prefer the forthright “muscle speech” of the blue-collar potato vendors: “You faggot! Don’t get arrogant with me! I’ll erase you!” I think it’s much more spiritually healthy for society if people can express themselves directly, that they don’t fool themselves about what they mean. Also, these potato vendors have to take responsibility for their violent words, unlike the “institutional speech” speakers. They are willing to step out of the “safety zone” and risk everything to defend their turf.
But what I hate the most, more than any of these kinds of “speech”, is the enormous amount of people that really DO agree with me, that DO respect my struggle . . . yet do nothing on their own!
MY FIGHT WITH THE “COMMUNIST PARTY” WHO SUPPOSEDLY “PROTECTS THE WEAK”
Be that as it may, I’m not fighting 24/7 anymore. And when I do struggle, I don’t expect the other party to change. I don’t care if they despise me or hate me, either. All I want to accomplish is to express my outrage, so that I’m not burdened by repressed anger. Whether I “win” or “lose” the argument , I still win! Venting at some noisy scoundrel can make me feel lighter, younger, and refreshed. It’s good for my health!
When I walk to work, maybe I’ll pass a potato-selling speaker-truck in my neighborhood, and I am OK with it. But then I’ll pass another truck, blaring announcements that I’M TURNING RIGHT! PLEASE BE CAREFUL, I’M MAKING A RIGHT TURN NOW!! . . and I can still tolerate it. But when I finally get to the damn train station, and I have to deal with some lady politician from the JCP (Japan Communist Party), with her deafening speaker-trucks, yelling WE THE COMMUNISTS, ARE STANDING UP FOR THE WEAK, WE PROTECT SOCIETY’S MINORITIES!!! Their announcements cause me such suffering, all without any sense of the irony . . . . I have had all I can take!!! Oh really, you’re doing your thing in my name? For me? Really?
Personally I could give two shits one way or another about the JCP’s politics. I just want them to turn down their volume! I had no choice – if I didn’t protest right now, I’d be up all night burning with anger and regret. I walked right up to the politician – I must say, she was quite attractive – and got in her face.
“I don’t want to hear your political complaints anymore! It’s loud and extremely offensive! Stop it at once!” I said.
She was shocked! Although she’d been trying to capture the attention of passers-by all day, it never for a second occurred to her that someone would try to capture her attention! She had obviously not considered that anyone would ever object to her ceaseless barrage of noise!
She was scared for a second, but quickly recovered, and we started having a dialogue. She said that her volume was below the legal limit, and her announcements were to help the JCP protect the rights of the weak people, and no one else had complained, and other such RUBBISH.
After I endured her idiotic rebuttals, I said, “But you’re causing a huge nuisance for everyone around you, don’t you know that? You think it’s OK to make those around you suffer, so long as you get your way?” Then I told her: “I’d like you to stop making speeches until I’ve left the station.” And she obeyed. That was my “harvest” for that particular day.
But other politicians are not so easily dealt with. Another day, I was at my home around noon, when I was startled out of my wits by a sudden and unbelievably loud racket. I had been sleeping, using both curtains and earplugs, but the din cut through them like they weren’t even there! It was such a violent sound I couldn’t even think about “waiting it out” – I threw on my clothes and walked to the source of the bother: a political speaker-van parked in front of a vacant lot just thirty meters from my house. The JCP, of course!
LET’S PROTECT PENSIONS FOR THE ELDERLY! LET’S PROTECT THE HANDICAPPED, and other such vacant, no-duh slogans. When I realized that not only was it unbearably loud, but also unbearably stupid, I really flew into a rage. I charged the van, yelling in my loudest voice, WHAT ARE YOU DOING, MAKING SUCH STUPID ANNOUNCEMENTS?!?!? In response, a lady politician’s head peeped out the window, and we instantly got into an amazing fight.
“You say you’re on the side of the so-called weak people, but what about those of us working night-shifts? What about the home-bound, those who work at home, the sick and handicapped? Why are you waking them up and disturbing them? You haven’t given any thought to your own political mission statement!”
“No one is saying that but you! You’re the only one complaining!”
“Idiot! If I didn’t complain, would that mean everyone in our neighborhood is overjoyed that you’re here? Were you expecting everyone to come out of our houses and hold you a welcome party? You’re interrupting my work. Are you going to admit responsibility for that? I have a deadline tomorrow morning, and have to work through the night. That’s why I was sleeping just now . .. until you came along!”
“We’re fighting for people more disadvantaged than you! We care about their suffering more than you do!”
“If your constituency is so weak they can’t leave their houses, then they’re too weak to come out like me and tell you to shut up! They’re probably inside right now, holding their fingers in their ears!”
After more arguing, the JCP must have felt it was advisable to move to a different location. Even the politician (whoever it was!) stopped speechifying. But I was so mad, I wouldn’t let them escape. As the van started pulling away, I continued to rant to their rear-view mirror where they could still see me. I caught up with the van, and then stood in front of it, yelling, “RUN ME OVER IF YOU DARE!!!!”
The driver made a polite gesture indicating that I should step aside, but I absolutely did not. And you know what happened next? He started backing up! All the way to the end of the street! Some forty meters. He backed into the main street, as the politician resumed screeching WE THE COMMUNIST PARTY EXPRESS THE OPINION OF THE OPPRESSED GROUPS OF SOCIETY!! No doubt they were just going to annoy people in another section of the city. But I’d made them retreat – they couldn’t stand the wrath of this oppressed person driven to the edge of insanity !!!
Perhaps my wise readers are scratching their heads, saying, “Well, if they only moved and did it somewhere else, then what good did your insane protest do? It would have been better to do nothing.” But I have no regrets at all! It is exactly because my protest was so insane that it was so cathartic. . . I felt cleansed, lightened, empowered, spiritually rejuvenated. Best of all, I didn’t have to go to bed that day, sick with repressed rage, thinking “If only I’d stood up to them . . .”
Plus, I’d made them feel my pain, if only for a little while. Even if they didn’t agree with it, they couldn’t deny how crazy they’d driven me – they saw for themselves the reality that they’d created. That in itself is a substantial victory!
PICK UP THE CONDUCTOR’S MICROPHONE AND THROW IT ON THE TRAIN TRACKS!
Many people ask me “Why do you keep doing these protests that have no payoff?” and I always answer, “But they do have a payoff!” To me, not fighting hurts more. Not fighting leaves one with a feeling of lingering resentment which only adds to the pain. And even if sometimes these battles escalate into big public scenes, it’s still all justified in self-defense.
For example, the train station near my house has an unusually loud-voiced young worker named Mr. U. Naturally he uses a loudspeaker anyway, to make his announcements. Many times I have told him, “You have a naturally loud voice, don’t you?” but he never turns down the speaker. When he’s working, you can hear him from over 20 meters away from the station! One day, when he was even louder than usual, and I went to tell him to turn down. This must have been the fiftieth time. But he kept on announcing, totally ignoring me. I had reached the limit of my patience. If I didn’t act now, I’d have to spend the whole rest of the day in bed, full of regret and corrosive rage. Heedless of the possibility of oncoming trains, I ripped the microphone from Mr. U’s hand and threw it right on the tracks.
Mr. U. just stood there, following the descending microphone with his eyes, saying “Are-re-re-re.”
It’s pretty funny the way we Japanese react to things. Mr. U. never expected a customer to seize his microphone, so he was unable to promptly decide what to do. His brain stopped working, and all he could do was say that “Are-re-re-re.” I left Mr. U. behind, and went to look for the station master to report the incident.
“I asked Mr. U. I-don’t-know-how-many times to turn down, and he never would, so I threw his mike on the tracks.” The station master’s response was also really interesting. I could read his thoughts: “What an absurd incident! And what’s more – the perpetrator himself is complaining?!?”
His brain had frozen up. He looked at me slowly from head to toe, saying, “Is . . . .that . . . so?”
Meanwhile, I was already deep in re-telling the details of the story. But the station master simply stood there and said, “Is . . .that . . . so?”
My act was clearly illegal, so he should have taken me to the police station, but he did nothing of the sort. Mr. U. never even showed up to give his side of the story. He probably just picked up the microphone and continued to announce trains. . . like a sucker! Dissatisfied with this lazy state of affairs, I had no choice but to return to the platform and board the next train.
THE KINDERGARTEN WHICH IS PICKLED BY LOUDSPEAKERS
In this country, individuals fighting on their own behalf is unheard of. Perhaps that’s why it is so unexpectedly easy to get away with it. Let me give you an example.
In Sengawa, there’s the Kaoru Kindergarten. This kindergarten has a dormitory, so the pupils are pickled in loudspeaker announcements 24/7, without a thought as to what kind of miserable, stupid adults this will turn them into. What’s more, this kindergarten is on my way to work. Frequently, I can hear the painfully loud announcements thirty meters away from the heart of the kindergarten! I could not stand the extreme pain this caused me, so one time I charged directly into the kindergarten, yelling, “What is this infernal racket?!?”, and flipped the speaker switch to “off.”
This was yet another instance when people didn’t even try to stop me because they never imagined that someone might attempt such a stunt. The workers around me just looked on dumbly, as I shut off their system. Apparently the boss was not in, so a young male teacher had to confront me: “Is it OK to do things like that?” I told him, “Of course it is!” and he had no response. But they weren’t ready to quit: they just wanted to avoid a confrontation. I was followed by all the students and teachers to the entrance, and the moment I walked out the main gate, the recordings started up again, louder than ever.
Another day, Kaoru Kindergarten’s speakers were blaring the theme song of “ONI WA SOTO! FUKU WA UCHI!” (a traditional children’s game). Of course I had to charge in again. They must have remembered me, because all the teachers ran away. Strangely.
Without hesitation, I grabbed the microphone from a young female teacher, who was staring vacantly, and screamed, “ARE YOU TRYING TO KILL THESE CHILDREN?!?” This time, the boss was present. But he, along with the manger (her husband as it turned out) merely peeped out the windows of their office. If it was me, I definitely would have called the police.
From there, the scenario took and even stranger turn.
The female teacher dropped the microphone and ran headlong into the depths of the kindergarten. She said, “I have a small voice, so I need the megaphone to talk. But, I can scream good!” and with that, she proceeded to run around the playground screaming “ONI WA SOTO! FUKU WA UCHI!” At the top of her lungs.
I was dumbfounded. I followed after, trying to reason: “ What are you doing? Is that a way to act?!? If you use the microphone and just speak softly, everyone can still hear you!” but she wouldn’t listen. Looking as if she were about to weep, she continued to scream hysterically, “ONI WA SOTO! FUKU WA UCHI!”
I left the kindergarten, and once again, the speakers started up behind me. It was one of those things.
PURANTAN , THE BARBARIC DEPARTMENT STORE
You readers are probably already tired of these stories.
So I’ll just do one more.
The place: the very high-class Ginza shopping district. One day, getting off the subway at Yuurakicho station, heading towards Ginza, my ears were assaulted by a deafening din of speakers. It was so loud, at first I thought some uyoku (right-wing militia groups) had come through in their giant speaker-vans, but that was not the case. It was the Purantan store (and what an idiotic name that is for a store, in the first place!). They’d erected an enormous stage directly in front of their entrance-way, obstructing nearly the entire sidewalk, leaving just enough room for a single person to squeeze by. They were doing a model-show for their new summer yutaka, but foolishly, all the models were white people.
The whole stage was surrounded by speakers, which emitted a ferocious din of music. And of course there was a lady holding a microphone in one hand, giving announcements even louder than the music. My whole body was filled with anger to the point of physical pain. I ran to the nearest public phone box and dialed 110 (like 911). “Come quickly! Purantan is having a yutaka show! They’re making a god-awful racket – it must be in violation of city ordinances. Please put a stop to it at once.”
Then, without hesitation, I approached the wings of the stage, and told the young man working there, “I want to talk to the person in charge. One can hear this sound for thirty meters in all directions! What are you people thinking?!? This level of volume is clearly in excess of city ordinances, and furthermore, your stage is forcing pedestrians into the street. It’s impossible to walk around here. And what about the handicapped, in their wheelchairs? I’ve already dialed the police, they’ll be here any minute now.”
Then we exchanged business cards.
“Wait here a second,” he told me, and escaped backstage.
But the person in charge never emerged, and I was stuck waiting in vain. The police will surely take care of these rascals, I thought, but they didn’t show up either. The nefarious yukata show, with its hideous din, kept going on an on.
I ran out in the middle of the street, and stood directly in the path of the first car to come along. Naturally, this being high-class Ginza, it was considered very rude to ever honk one’s horn here. The driver silently sat in his vehicle, finally making a “please get out of the way” gesture. I paid him no mind. Then he slowly edged his car forward until it was almost touching my body. I considered jumping on his hood, but decided against it. Finally, a “snake of cars” stretching well over twenty meters was stopped in front of me. Finally, the “man in charge” showed his face.
In fact, several Purantan workers were looking for me, and when they finally found me in the middle of the road, they called out in surprise: “AA!!” Then: “Excuse me, you’re blocking traffic. Could you move aside, sir,” they implored. But they still wouldn’t come near me. They stayed on the sidewalk, calling, “Excuse me, excuse me, hello!”waving their hands, and bowing at the same time. Why did they not deal with my reckless acts in a more effective, direct manner? I turned to them and bellowed, “There’s no room on the sidewalk anymore, so I’m watching the show from here!”
In response, they resorted to simply saying “Please!” over and over. I paid them no mind. Making matters even more odd, not even a single driver had emerged from his car to accost me. Perhaps they assumed there had been a serious accident, and were prepared to wait a long time.
This stalemate lasted for around ten minutes, when I decided that it was enough, and walked over to them. And then we began the following exchange:
“You people! You turn so pale when I block traffic, but you yourselves block the pedestrians without a second thought! Have you no idea the inconvenience you’re causing all the walkers? How can you be so insensitive?!?”
A man with an armband identifying himself as “Chief Manager of Sales” kept saying, “Excuse me, excuse me, hello!”
“Well, if you are bored with my complaints, then stop your event at once!” I retorted.
At that point, still more workers emerged from backstage and said, “It’ll be over soon, so could you please . . .?”
And than after two minutes, it really was over. Several days later, I wrote a letter to the president of Purantan, enclosing a huge amount of supplementary material, including a brochure from the Environment Ministry entitled “Public Noise Handbook”, and my own book, “Urusai Nippon to Watashi.”
I received a reply, written in the now-familiar “institutional speech” : “You have given me a lot to reflect about. Please don’t hesitate to teach me more in the future.”
A few days later, I went to check the source of a horrible din, and sure enough it led me straight to Purantan. They were doing some event to sell cell-phones. I stormed in and yelled at the salesman with the microphone, “GET ME YOUR MANAGER!” I had to wait thirty minutes, but finally the manager of sales came out. In my usual fashion, I confronted him : “How dare you people lie like that! Tell the truth – many people ask you to turn down the sounds, right?” The bastard ducked and dodged my questions like an expert. It was no use dealing with that guy, so I up and left.
Here I’d like to announce something. Purantan is a dishonorable and barbaric department store. Never mind its prices, it is a fundamentally vulgar place which has no business in a high-class district such as Ginza. May they go bankrupt at once!
DOUTONBORI IS CRAP NOWADAYS!
One day, I was called to attend a meeting of music teachers at the Osaka University of Art. It had been a long time since I'd been to Osaka, but I'd heard many rumors about the unrelenting announcements on their Midousuji subway line. I steeled myself for battle as I boarded the Midousuji train. And, just as I'd feared, the twenty minutes it took to reach my station were little more than sheer torture.
The train was absolutely flooded with these useless broadcasts. On top of that, every time we pulled into a station, loudspeakers outside the train would inform us that, THIS STATION IS NON-SMOKING SO PLEASE COOPERATE WITH THE RULES AS YOU EXIT THE TRAIN. Adding to my irritation were the announcements that one would normally get only on a bus:
THIS STOP IS FOR SUCH-AND-SUCH BANK! THIS NEXT STOP IS FOR SUCH-AND-SUCH SUPERMARKET!
(in a separate incident, an acquaintance of mine who worked for a bus company told me that "The fees we collect from those announcements keep passengers' fares down.") Honestly, some people are living in an entirely different world from me!
As the endless subway ride continued, I considered how many different levels of sensitivity that different types of people have. The vast gap between people's levels pains me. And here I'm going to widen my scope a bit: It's a huge mistake to think that no one minds the loud speaker-trucks that roam about during election season. But on the other hand, some people in sparsely populated areas actually phone the politicians to complain, "You guys never come out here!"
But you know what really gives me the "goose pimples of furious detestation"? When the towns use the Emergency Disaster Evacuation speaker network (mounted on light-posts in residential areas) to broadcast a too-cute song every evening, followed with the announcement: IT’S TIME FOR ALL GOOD CHILDREN TO GO HOME FOR DINNER NOW! It's this horrible Big Brother as sugary-sweet Disney character type of thing.
I asked Mr. O. at my local city hall about it, and he told me, "It's unusual for people to complain that the chime is too loud. Usually people complain that it isn't loud enough."
Well, then! Just do whatever you like, why don't you?!?
It was March 10th, around noon. I was walking towards my local station as always, when I heard a dreadful din from somewhere: TODAY IS. . . . . JAPAN'S SURRENDER . . . . MEMORIAL . . . . DAY! WE LOST . . . THE WAR. . . . AND WE LOST. . . . MANY LIVES. . . PLEASE. . .. TAKE A MOMENT . . . OF SILENCE AND PRAYER. . . .FOR THEM NOW.
Of course, of all the people I could see, not one was praying for the dead. But how many of us had misgivings about this violent, sudden, intrusive burst of advice? How many of us were angry inside? Later that same day, to prevent a build-up of anger (which is very bad for my heart), I paid the city hall a visit. But I doubt they'll change their procedures.
Let's return to Osaka.
The following day, I was walking through the South Entertainment District (Minami no Hankagai), and realized quite clearly that it sucked. Usually when I go walking, I use both my earplugs and my CD player with the headphones. But that day, I decided just as an experiment to go without. To disarm myself, as it were.
It was really uncomfortable, but it couldn't be helped: my "armor" would have been useless in any case against the explosive power of megaphone-wielding salespeople which assaulted my ears from all sides. On top of that, there was a huge screen next to Ebisu Bridge, and rock and roll music videos were playing at deafening volume. Next to the hateful screen was a Chinese seafood restaurant with a tape loop that chanted COME TRY OUR CRABS! COME TRY OUR CRABS! COME TRY OUR CRABS! Even the used-book stores were playing enka. I felt as if I had gone inside a giant pachinko parlor, or I was trapped inside a video-game center. What surprised me the most, though, was that, in the midst of this "speaker hell," lovers and families walked side-by-side, smirks on their faces, seemingly without a care in the world.
Attempting an experiment, I'd hidden a recorder as well as a decibel meter in my handbag, but the readings were off the scale.
"Enough already," I muttered to myself, and took a side street to Midousuji. To my relief, the streets widened, and there was almost no noise. This little neighborhood is also Japan, I reminded myself. But that terrible shopping district is Japan, too. One has to take both Japans, as if there is no contradiction. Just like West Shinjuku, where the ultra-modern high-rise business district abuts the very cheap, old-fashioned, garish shopping streets. Perhaps we Asians intentionally construct our cities this way.
We feel most comfortable when the noisiest parts are right next to the quietest parts; the more of a patchwork, the better!
KYOTO'S SHIJOU ROAD IS NOTHING BUT A SERIES OF OFFICIAL WARNINGS!!!
Looking for a way out of Osaka, I decided to take the express train to traditional Kyoto. Kyoto people like to look down on Osaka people and say, "We're different from them!" But as far as the SOUNDS go, Kyoto people have nothing to boast about (of course, neither do us Tokyoites). In a test of the "sound environment," Osaka scores a miserable 20, but Kyoto is only 25.
I'd like you to acknowledge this.
I got off the train at Kawaharacho station, went outside, and immediately overcome with rage: it was as if Kawaharacho was the capital of the Roaring Din District. I don't know if it was right-wingers or left-wingers or what, but there was some kind of heavily amplified public speaker lecturing in the middle of the street, throwing a real tantrum.
Instead of arresting the culprit, the police decided to add their own looped loudspeaker messages intermittently: RECENTLY SOME SHOPS HERE HAVE BEEN SELLING DEFECTIVE MAKEUP. IF YOU ARE A VICTIM OF SUCH A SCAM, PLEASE REPORT TO THE NEAREST POLICE STATION! IT’S FORBIDDEN TO RIDE BICYCLES ON THE SIDEWALK. WALK YOUR BIKES IN THIS AREA. and other such foolish admonitions. In fact, the former announcement was repeated on a billboard right in front of me, fully ten meters long! Did this add to the legendary beauty of Kyoto? And yet, people were enjoying themselves just as if they were not inundated with the vomit from these explosive loudspeakers.
If one were to gather together us people who find these SOUNDS painful, the smarter of us might say, "Well, who needs an announcement of "Don't be swindled" ?!? Grown-ups should be aware of swindles, that's obvious!" But apparently it's not obvious to the majority of Japanese. Nobody gets the least bit irritated. If anything, people take comfort in it – even people to whom the announcement absolutely does not apply.
To you intellectuals and cultured people who are irritated by all this noise, who feel cursed by a country that doesn't teach people self-responsibility, I say: listen to your hearts! Wake up! Your countrymen love these official warnings! On the street, in the train, in the bus, in the park ,in the malls, the graveyards, the beaches, even in the mountainside, at work, school, they cry, "We want to be told what to do!"
Words from above are automatically assumed to be true and proper, so they pass through the tympanic membrane easily into the brain. If you think I'm lying, go to Shijou Road and ask passers-by, "Do you think this official warning is necessary?" Thrust a microphone at them. They'll look at you suspiciously, and reluctantly answer like this: "Well, yeah, it's good. There are people, victims in trouble and such. They need it."
This isn't the remnant of some feudal custom designed to manipulate or control the average citizens. Nor is it like the strict "control" announcements after the war, which most common people rose up and protested. You can't say that the police are doing them with bad intentions, because these days, average, good-hearted people have come to rely on the announcements.
JAPANESE PEOPLE ARE LIKE BIRDS, AFRAID OF A SCARECROW
Similarly, if the police had a sincere desire to prevent illegal bike parking, they would increase the frequency of their patrols, and as soon as they find an illegal bicycle, they confiscate it and charge up to $500 to return it. If they did that, the problem would immediately vanish. But of course, such a law would never be passed.
Of course, people with a European "individual rights" mentality could not comprehend such a law to begin with. But bear with me please.
The average person thinks nothing of parking his or her bicycle illegally. And if someone – police or just a random guy – tries to confiscate their bicycle, the average person would fly into a rage. That’s how Japanese are.
The police know this, so in order to circumvent such conflicts, they broadcast loudspeaker messages, saying PLESE DON’T PARK HERE. If they hear the messages, Japanese bike-parkers will know that they will be causing a nuisance to those around them. The embarrassment will cause them to follow the rules. This is also how Japanese are, and the police rely on this. Of course it doesn’t work overnight, but over the course of time, people will start to see, “Oh, there’s no bicycles parked here, maybe I shouldn’t park mine, either.” And by being patient, the police can enforce the law without super-strict measures or hostile conflicts with citizens.
I was watching the NHK Morning News one day, and saw a young male reporter standing with his microphone in the middle of a Yokohama rice paddy, smirking, and saying “This morning’s report is good news!”
The camera zoomed back to reveal a row of tall poles, lining the large road running alongside the rice paddy. These spanking new poles each had a loud-speaker which bellowed PLEASE DO NOT DUMP YOUR TRASH ILLEGALLY HERE! PLEASE DO NOT DUMP YOUR TRASH ILLEGALLY HERE! PLEASE DO NOT DUMP YOUR TRASH ILLEGALLY HERE!
The good news was, the illegal dumping had come to a sudden halt.
They cut away to a file photo of the former street, which was lined with trash. Then a short video of a whole line of cars stopping along the street, one by one opening their doors to toss out their huge bags of trash. Doubtless, they had simply found another street in the same city to do their dumping. This was the “super effective” plan the TV was talking about. Naturally I flew into a rage, promptly telephoning both NHK and the Yokohama City office. But who knows if that would make them stop?
First, to me, a road with loudspeakers on a constant loop of PLEASE DO NOT DUMP YOUR TRASH ILLEGALLY HERE! PLEASE DO NOT DUMP YOUR TRASH ILLEGALLY HERE! PLEASE DO NOT DUMP YOUR TRASH ILLEGALLY HERE! doesn’t feel like a place for living things. Two, of course I hate dumpers, but the solution is clearly worse than the problem! If they’re so worried about dumping, wouldn’t it be common sense to hire a guard instead?
But the whole question of, “Is it effective or not?” only serves to distract from the true, fundamental issue. Sure, the booming tape alone is enough to scare off even the most die-hard dumpers. But, why are Japanese so scared of a tape in the first place? Are we crows, scared of a straw man?
But even the most timid criminals, if they knew there was no real danger of being caught by police, would instantly return to dumping trash. Just like the people who no longer pay attention to the DON’T PARK YOUR BICYCLE HERE announcements or the DON’T USE YOUR CELL-PHONE ON THE TRAIN announcements, it’s inevitable that people in Yokohama will return to their old habits when they realize that there is no danger in ignoring the tape.
Just like a bird who realizes a scarecrow is just made of straw.
Then, presumably, the Yokohama City Council will erect an even more impressive “scarecrow”, which will also lose its effect since it, too, will not be backed up with real police. And then a third, even more fearsome “scarecrow,” and so on. Like a municipal game of whack-a-mole. Japan is becoming a country of scarecrows.
I’m afraid this mentality is much too deep in our Japanese bones for anyone to do anything about it. And the way that I sigh, roll my eyes, and talk down to the MASSES is certainly not going to help matters any. But the MASSES are clever in their own way – they intuitively know the rules, what behaviors will benefit them, what behaviors will get them shunned by their fellow villagers. They know that, if they should meet a stranger to their town, the wisest thing to do is to ignore him. This kind of "wisdom" is in their bones, so to speak. They know to listen to the "voices from above", with their endless stream of advice, rather than their own internal voices.
Please don’t understand me. I’m not endorsing this attitude. And I’m not saying that it will never ever change. I’m just saying this attitude is in our blood, in our bone marrow. And changing it will be very difficult. The first step is to simply make people aware of this cultural phenomenon. “Oh, I’d never thought of it before, but now that you mention it. . . .” they’ll say. That’s how we can begin our cultural revolution. Although it’s a journey of a million miles, we have to start somewhere.
THE SOCIETY FOR CONSIDERING THOSE DAMN MEGAPHONES
I want to emphasize how difficult it is to change the situation with social activism. The usual strategies of activist groups absolutely don't apply to the problem of the SOUNDS.
I spoke with Ms. T., a women’s-rights activist who also has run successful campaigns to preserve the names of old cities (apparently some city governments try to change the names to attract investors?!?) . We did a dialogue featured in the pages of AMENITY, the newsletter for “The Society For Considering Megaphones.”
She said, "WTF is up with that endless loop of PLEASE WATCH OUT, YOU’RE ABOUT TO GET ON AN ESCALATOR!!! in Tokyo Shinkansen station? Nakajima, before we write a letter to the station director, let's get a petition going, let's get some famous names to co-sign, let's really do this activism properly. What do you say?"
I replied, "I think even that would be futile. The station master would send back a letter saying, ‘Honored Customer, it is our great pleasure to hear your opinions,’ and that would be the end of it. And do you really think you could get a million signatures? If that many people found the announcements irritating, there would already be a million complaints, and the stations would already have stopped. I don't think famous names would help, either."
After just this one interview, she stopped trying to do the petition. I don’t blame her, however. As I’ve said many times before, it’s wrong to try to force the majority to change. This kind of “scary Big Brother” approach reminds people of the Meiji Restoration, and the Macarthur GHQ government. And those were both ultimately unsuccessful.
On the other hand, if there was a “culture revolution” led by the leading intellectuals and influential people, perhaps they could influence the MASSES in the nick of time. Perhaps they could persuade the people to cooperate in a national campaign of reform. Fundamentally, majority rule is a good idea, but its narrow focus on “number-based” arguments rules out petitions, when the petitioners are in the minority.
The number of like-minded noise sufferers is small, and frankly most of us shudder at the thought of publicly campaigning for change. However, thanks to the efforts of Mr. Takanashi Akira, and his organization, The Society For Considering Megaphones, the opportunities for activism have increased.
Fifteen years ago, when Mr. Takanashi returned to Japan from France, he found his homeland totally pickled in speaker noise. Instinctively resenting this turn of events, he decided to start the Society newsletter, AMENITY, with the goal of gathering like-minded people. Mr. Takanashi had a skill for organizing people, so his group eventually had branches all over the country. Hokkaido, Kansai, Kyuushuu and so forth. And then, the branches started to meet in person, to discuss counter-measures to the noise in their various cities. And then some organized street marches, which got the group on NHK television. They held many symposia, were interviewed by Akao Satoshi (??) and Aoshima Yukio, and sent letters to the Diet asking for a suspension of the election-time loudspeaker vans.
They petitioned then-minister of Transportation Ishihara to declare certain shinkansen cars “quiet cars.” That petition was not successful, but they were, among other actions, able to get rid of the excessive chimes in the schools. They even did some lawsuits, for instance a suit that forced the Odakyuu subway to stop audio advertisements for stores near the stations. Mr. Takanashi’s real strong point was as an essayist.He wrote many articles on this topic in a music magazine.
When I first joined the organization, eight years ago, I thought, “We can change Japan pretty quickly if we all get together, can’t we!” How naive I was! After a while, I had to admit we were simply getting nowhere. None of the regular people, before and behind us, to our left and right, seemed to care what we were saying.
Some people cared about the announcements in trains. But nobody understood about the street loudspeakers, to say nothing of the escalator announcements. Naturally, people began to quit the group in discouragement. The core people fought on, like soldiers outnumbered in a war, dropping one by one.
The newsletter, AMENITY, became even more focused on noise, and nothing else : not activism so much as people consoling one another. The articles were nothing more than, “I hate this noise!” “Well, I hate that noise!” “Let me introduce you to the great sound-environment of north Europe.” And so forth. What was even the point anymore, I wanted to ask.
It was in this atmosphere that Mr. Takanashi announced, “I have said all that I have to say on the subject, so I’m retiring from the organization.” Some of the other members vowed to continue publishing the newsletter, but I couldn’t see the point. Sometimes there would be meetings – a whole ten people – but again, I didn’t understand why.
Personally, I was not as devastated as Mr. Takanashi. Unlike him, I never wanted or expected a total social revolution. I think it would be extraordinarily difficult to solve this problem with revolution. But it’s precisely because I agree it’s a serious issue, that’s exactly why I’m very picky about the way in which to fight it.
THIS IS DIFFERENT FROM SOUND POLLUTION
My main point is this: I’ve fallen totally out of step with the vast majority of other scientists and theorists complaining of “the noise hell of today’s Japan” . . .they all come to different conclusions than I.
The theorists who talk about “soundscapes of society” use acoustics and human physiology to make their case, and on that basis they classify certain sound environments as “good” or “bad” (in some cases they even classify silence as bad!). But I’m here to warn you that this kind of thinking can be very dangerous. It doesn’t allow for how different individuals have different sensitivity levels – the goodness or badness of sounds doesn’t reside in the environment but in our heads!
But perhaps that’s why the government likes their plans more than my plans! Already the Ministry of Environment and the Ministry of Culture are considering implementing the “Japan’s 100 best sounds” campaign (based on these theorists’ theories) in parks, cities, and so on. But what IS a “good sound environment?”
Perhaps the answer is, “Whatever the majority says it is!” Or, even more dangerously, “whatever the normal people say it is!” So whatever sounds the scientists select (with their acoustics and physiology research), if you don’t agree with them, you are automatically “abnormal” and therefore your opinion doesn’t count. “Seeing things from others’ point of view” no longer applies to you.
Of course these theorists would reply, “It’s not that simple, Nakajima!”
But if you talk to the people who design urban sounds and announcements, they will tell you that it IS that simple: their fundamental rule is: design what the average people want. Despite all their aesthetic sense and training, they can’t deviate from that fundamental rule even a little. I'd like them to admit that making public spaces full of violent and evil sounds is part of their training, part of their occupation. I'd like them to admit that they cause suffering to some people, even if it is a tiny minority. And I'd like it if this newfound knowledge caused them to suffer a little (a lot!?) every time they designed a new "public sound" .
In a recent issue of the Asahi morning newspaper (1998, August 13th), there was the following report:
People calling themselves “noise fighters” think that the sounds you make are noise.
In the train station, the alleyways, department stores, our cities overflow with loudspeaker sounds. The urban sounds have drifted too far from real music, say a group of rebellious classical music percussionists, dubbed the “Japan Percussion Association”. The JPA has started a mission to save the world from “noise!” Counting the students of music schools, the JPA has over 1,000 members and they have begun an all-out hunt for bothersome sounds. They are cataloguing and measuring them throughout the city. To try to have a lasting effect, though, they are preparing to work with government agencies on new regulations.
I don’t disagree with the JPA. I think everyone should fight for what they believe in. But I’m a bit confused by their activities. Their solution seems to be: asking the the government to replace "bad" (non-musical) noises and announcements with "good" (musical) ones. But to people such as myself, this is no improvement at all, is it?!? What we resent is the fact that strangers are cramming our ears with sounds every second of the day, that strangers in faraway rooms have decided what we shall hear from morning till night. The actual "content" of the sounds is immaterial!
Some colleagues of mine at Osaka Music University say it’s already impossible to teach music education anymore in this society. “Modern Japan is so musically inferior!” they scream. !Not only do the kids raised in the modern “sound environment” lack the subtlety to understand classical music, they have even lost the ability to appreciate the many nuances of traditional Japanese sounds! Their sensitivity level is so low!” I sympathize with them 100 percent. At a faculty meeting, one sensei said, “Everyone! Isn’t musical education nowadays in a shameful state?!? Shouldn’t we blame ourselves?” I’m glad he said that! He continued, “We should begin to emphasize the role of quietness, silence, and dynamics in music.” I applauded him from the bottom of my heart. Just a small change like this is enough to give me courage to go on!
But, and maybe I’m being too picky here, even such passionate senseis and musicians don’t notice the SOUNDS once they go out into the street.
And in any case, none of their very passionate arguments ever overflows the classrooms and affects anyone of the MASSES No matter how much they may sigh, wring their hands, and write their little essays, they still haven't figured out the answer is: to FIGHT. If they really think that "Musical education is 100% impossible these days!" then they should either go on strike until the education system is reformed, or they should quit their jobs! Have some dignity, people!