Sunday, April 08, 2007

Loudspeaker rage

I don't know if I've mentioned the noise problem in Japan before. It is such a ubiquitous part of life here that I probably haven't said much, because my irritation is at a low-grade simmer most of the time rather than erupting in aggrieved outbursts. (Although it does happen occasionally). But if you live in Japan, one of the things you have to get used to is public announcements. Constant public announcements, and noises that function as announcements.

For example, four or five times a week the rubbish truck will go past, and as it trawls the neighbourhood it plays an irritating song, VERY LOUDLY. It is a short song, but a repetitive one, and you can hear it coming from several blocks away. When it passes the house, if I am listening to music or to a podcast I have to pause it, because for a few minutes I can't hear anything but the rubbish truck.

Then there is the guy who drives slowly around the neighbourhood once or twice a week offering to take away old refrigerators, scooters, videos, televisions, and so on (for a fee, which he doesn't mention unless you ask). His truck blares an announcement about what he will take away. It plays at high volume, and he drives very slowly.

Then there is the paper recycling truck, which does the same thing, and the guy who sells kerosene for heaters, and the guy selling ramen, and the sweet potato vendor ... and ... well, you get the picture.

The trains are the worst, though. On the trains there are neverending announcements. You always know where you are on a train, because the train's destination and next stop are announced at least twice for every stop. If you are on a local train that stops every two minutes, that can be a lot of announcements. There are also announcements to tell you what side of the train the doors will open at the next stop, and to mind the door, and not to forget anything when you get off, and if it's raining not to leave your umbrella behind. These announcements are often very loud, the exception being that on the rare occasion you actually want to know something they will be an inaudible mumble. (This does not happen very often.) Most trains also have large electronic signs giving the exact same information, so redundancy runs high. So does irritation, at least mine.

At the train stations the announcements are even louder and more repetitive. The ones that always make me want to throttle someone happen when the automatic announcement is interrupted in the middle by some guy in a uniform on the platform with a loudspeaker who cuts in to urgently bellow the EXACT SAME INFORMATION YOU JUST HEARD, only louder. If you are at a large station, like Osaka, quite frequently the announcements overlap each other, so you are being bombarded by a jumble of noise and words and it becomes hard to sort out what any of them are saying. It is easier to read the electronic signboards, which are on every platform, and which give the exact same information except for the bit telling people to stand behind the yellow line. That information is written on the platform itself.

The train announcements are the reason I use noise-canceling earphones on the trains. It's that or shove the officious little uniformed prick with a loudspeaker off the platform. Those announcements are frequently so loud they actually hurt your ears. Noise-canceling earphones are pretty much a necessity if you want to preserve your hearing.

Incidentally, a couple of years ago they added a new announcement on my local train platform. Instead of announcing the train that is arriving now and the one that is standing at the platform, they also decided to fill in the lovely silence in between trains to tell you which train will be next and when and how many cars it is and which numbers to stand next to on the platform in order to board it. Since this information is also displayed right above our heads on the electronic signboard, this is simply another way of getting rid of the few moments of blessed silence we used to have. It serves no other purpose. I can only guess that silence is not a desirable condition. Maybe 'they' don't want us to start THINKING.

Oh, and let's not forget the loudspeaker announcements that come from helicopters. Occasionally the city government will decide that it would be a good idea to warn people about bag-snatchers, or about keeping the city clean, or whatever, and they send up a helicopter with an announcement to that effect. The helicopter will circle around, making sure to cover EVERY SQUARE METRE of the city, braying the announcement at such high volume the message is almost completely distorted and garbled. You have to listen very carefully to figure out what it is saying, which is not, I suspect, a normal reaction, at least not for me (and as everybody knows, I am a completely normal person). The normal reaction is to curse and cover your ears, which does not lend itself to comprehension.

But the worst announcements of all happen at election time, and these are the reason for this post. Local elections are today, I think (or tomorrow? I haven't been paying attention. I have been deliberately NOT listening) and for the last couple of weeks our eardrums have been assaulted with election campaigns, which consist of loudspeaker cars trawling the neighbourhood and bellowing the names of the candidates, or people standing around the train stations handing out leaflets and bombarding commuters with political speeches over loudspeakers with the candidate's name repeated every ten seconds in case people forget. The idea of repeating the candidates' names so often is that when people go to the polls they frequently don't have a clue who any of the names on the list are, so they are more likely to choose one they recognize. That's the theory, anyway. It is a good thing for them that I am not allowed to vote, because I would choose the name I had never heard before, on the grounds that this person, at least, had not rudely woken me up on a Sunday morning.

This morning I was woken by a helicopter announcement reminding people to vote. At least that's what I hope it was, because if it was, that means we will have relative peace for a while, or at least until the next election. (The rubbish trucks, newspaper recycling truck, train announcements and so on will, of course, continue.) I woke, waited and waited for it to go away so I could go back to sleep, and finally gave in and got up. It appeared to be circling the house. I was being targeted. AND I CAN'T EVEN VOTE.

As I was sipping my tea I had a brilliant idea which I do not expect anybody to pay any attention to. I think Japan should have an announcement-free week, just to see what happens. Trains should go silent. Train STATIONS should go silent. No rubbish truck songs. No newspaper recycling truck songs. Nothing. We should have a week of silence.

What I think would happen is that people would panic on the first day. They would run around on the train platform asking each other when the train is coming and from which platform, although it is written in large, bright letters right above their heads. They would worry about forgetting their possessions on the train because the familiar announcement did not happen. They would worry about being on the right train even though it is the exact same train they have been taking for twenty years. There would be letters to the editor, letters to train companies, and complaints at City Hall. People would worry about when rubbish day is even though they have the regular newsletter from City Hall informing them of the days stuck to the fridge.

By the third day people's brains might have started to work in the unaccustomed silence. (For many I suspect this will be an unfamiliar sensation.) They will stop leaving so many personal possessions on the trains, because with nobody telling them DON'T FORGET YOUR PERSONAL POSSESSIONS! DON'T FORGET YOUR PERSONAL POSSESSIONS! multiple times on every commute they would be worried that they'd forget, and actually remember, instead of sinking into an infantalized passivity. People would not take the wrong train so often because they would actually have to check the signs, instead of listening to the announcement coming from the wrong platform. They would read election pamphlets instead of doing their best to ignore the shrieking loudspeakers, and vote intelligently (which is probably why this week of silence will never happen).

I suspect that the biggest problem that would emerge from the silence would be an overwhelming rush to doctors because of the epidemic of previously undiagnosed tinnitus. However, I am sure that the plummeting crime rate due to the decrease in (also previously undiagnosed) loudspeaker rage would make it all worthwhile.


Keera Ann Fox said...

My ears are ringing after reading this. Makes me, too, want to go push someone off a platform for being loud.

And such good writing has (finally) made me decide to add you to my blogroll. That's not significant - my blogroll, I mean; I'm just letting you know you're going to be on it.

Pkchukiss said...

Well, when the local trains started to make announcements to not eat or drink on the railway premises, to not leave personal belongings unattended, to report all suspicious articles, to stand behind the yellow line, to remember to return the temporary tap card after exiting the station to retrieve the $1 deposit in the FOUR local languages, I pretty much empathise with what's going on over there.

Thank goodness Singapore's airspace is so tightly controlled that helicopters can't fly about wrecking their havoc on peace!

I remember there was this guy whom painted his roof with vulgarities. Don't remember which country, but I salute that guy for making an effort to diss those trouble-makers off! Tit-for-tat, so there!

Jon Hoff said...

Ha. A classic expats rant.

These little things tend to bother us after months -- not something you can observe in a two week trip!

Don't worry, you are not alone in Japan. The whole of Asia is a pair of cymbals crashing to together in an attempt to be heard over a scratchy Kareoke system.

In Vietnam there are plenty of sqwaking street vendors, and the constant honking of horns, although that doesn't bother me anymore. The other day, I went to a bakery. It had a sound system that Ministry of Sound would have been proud of. Why? I just wanted some little coconut cakes, not a ruptured eardrum.

Wiccachicky said...

Oh man - you are so right!! I remember this well. Not that other places are immune from noise or anything, but it always seemed to me that Japan was a very audio-oriented country. Here we have a lot of visuals everywhere, but less audio announcements. I'm surprised you didn't mention all the yelling and music at crosswalks - that almost always caught me off guard.

Lippy said...

Good grief! Makes me appreciate my dead quiet little home in the 'burbs. Except of course when the police choppers circle overhead. I *am* out West as you know... ;-)

Maria said...

oh yes! i HATE the loudspeaker trucks - during the last week of campaigning in kyoto, the trucks were out at full blast ahead.

however, the one that comes around for the recycled paper and the newspapers has a pleasant sound, and i appreciate the train station announcments, since back home in the subway they NEVER have those, and if they do, they are always garbled and incorrect. so in that respect i am grateful for the train announcments.

but the electioneering and the propaganda trucks! oooo dont get me started on those.

Gen said...

I feel you, brother. I was jolted out of bed this morning by the air raid siren followed by an announcement that there was a fire a mile from my house. Surely there is a better way to do this...

I assume you've read Dogs and Demons by Alex Kerr.

-Gen in Gifu