A Tolerance for Noise

As German living in Japan, I notice many similarities between the cultures that please my German heart.

We share a love for order and structure; and bureaucracy, though not a personal favourite, it does at least make me feel a sense of familiarity. We also share a pride in our work that, for example, the English seem to often be missing, but there are some things that we really think differently about.

One that really stands out to me is noise.

Here in Japan, things make noise. All the time. And somehow, nobody seems to mind.

In the cities, the escalators and elevators constantly warn you of such unexpected dangers as their own movement or their doors opening and closing, and the trains give a constant stream of automated guidance, such as not to cross your legs while sitting (apparently others may trip over them) or not to leave anything behind, between every single stop.

Out here in the countryside, there are loud speakers in every village, towering over the houses and fields, that will not just play crackly and somewhat wonky melodies at 7am, 12pm and 6pm, but, in my area at least, there is also an air-raid siren at 5pm, every single day.

If you are one of the unlucky ones (or have gotten the faster internet/telephone connection the town offers), you will even have a speaker inside your house or apartment, one that cannot be disconnected, which will also make these noises right in your living room, every single day.

Additionally these speakers will regularly blast out announcements from the local police or fire service, such as “The air is very dry today, so please don’t make any fires!” or, in the neighbouring town, the nightly reminder at 9pm to “remember to lock your doors!”

Now there is a whole lot of things wrong here to my ears.

Firstly, I believe the old saying that locked doors only keep good people from getting in and I always loved that around here, everyone’s door is always open.

Yes, neighbours will just suddenly be standing inside your house while you are in your pajamas making some tea in the morning, but it’s usually to share some vegetables or fish they have too much off. And it really is a great feeling to come home from a long day out and find that someone, who knows, since no one bothers leaving a note, has left you a whole box of radishes, onions, tomatoes, mackerels, sardines or whatever else is currently in season.

Secondly, I believe that sirens should only be used in emergencies and not to inform wives that it is time to go home from the fields and start preparing dinner. I also don’t think that testing the earthquake alarm system on the local loudspeakers, or the fire services slow-driving back and forth with everyone of their emergency vehicles sirens blasting out at 7am on Sunday morning needs to be done every month. I still struggle to understand the purpose… Is this just reassure people to know that it is there?

In Germany you are not allowed to use your lawnmower on Sundays or between 1pm and 3pm (midday’s rest time) on weekdays, to protect our sensitive ears, particularly on the holy day of rest, while here the community strimming in the summer will usually start at 6am on a Sunday, and a lot of locals will do their own fields before that, so sleeping in on the one day off a week that most people get is basically impossible if you have sensitive ears.

One thing that has become clear to me is that the Japanese barely take any notice of the noises going on around them. They are desensitised and seem to just fade them out in their head. Good on them, for how else could they work in a local combini or hardware store, where the company’s jingle or latest ad just plays over and over on an endless repeat. All day long. Every single day.

Our best supermarket takes it one step further and actually has songs for the meat section or the croquet zone – dumb, repetitive 30 second jingles, played loudly on a terrible mini stereo system, endlessly repeating. Blending in with the midi-versions of various unlicensed classics of western pop music coming from the main P.A. system, it really is a kind of torture for the attentive listener, even for the 30 minutes or so I spend shopping there.

Having good ears is a bit of a curse here, since the quality of sound is often very very low. Awful, screechy midi noises are never far away, whether the rice cooker playing the first bar of “Love Me Tender” to announce that it will now start cooking, or the washing machine giving off a quick major scale, just because I turned it on, and then informing me that it now knows it’s ABC when I ask it begin a wash cycle. Always terrible midi sounds. In the elevators, in the sauna!!, there is always some kind of noise.

It is clear that to Japanese ears, these things are not as grating and unpleasant as to mine. Going into a pachinko hall, I am stunned by the wall of noise that confronts you when the doors open, but neighbours have told me that they like to go there to relax. Well, it certainly will take your mind of things…

If I am ever buying any appliances, I will look for the ones that make the least, and least unpleasant, noises. And during election time, when the local politician’s car convoys drive around endlessly repeating their names over and over on their mounted loudspeaker systems, not making any statements or pledges on which they base their campaigns, just repeating their names, over and over again, I make a mental note that, if I ever do get to vote for anything around here, I will never ever vote for “Okada” or whoever else’s name has been ground into my psyche.

I keep wondering if I am the only one or if there are more of us that this noise bombardment has the opposite effect on and simply no one has bothered speaking up about it. Or maybe they did, but others just faded out that “noise”.