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Unsung heroes of Japanese culture - Spectacular sounds

Updated: Jun 19, 2021

Japan has amassed significant soft power, which I would argue is only increasing. Even those that have no real interest in the country can’t get around the increasing omnipresence of anime and will have heard of Samurai and Geisha. Those flocking to the country will likely know other famous cultural icons like ‘the great wave’ by Hokusai, the infamous Shibuya crossing, cosplay culture and zen gardens on tranquil temple grounds. All these icons serve as paragons of the Japanese image as projected abroad. Yet there’s also obscure wonders that are not as well known, unsung heroes of Japanese culture that only reveal themselves when one has spent time in the country. These are the heroes that cemented my gradual falling in love with Japan through small but meaningful experiences travel guides generally pass over, and it is time they have their moment in the spotlight.

Spectacular sounds

One of the associations people are likely to have with Japan is the bombardment of visual stimuli some of these stories have briefly touched upon already. This is to be expected, as one of the cliches that no show or movie about Japan dares to pass on, besides the token misplaced Geisha, is a shot of the sea of people at Shibuya Crossing or the eye-tearing amalgamation of neon signs in Shinjuku. We all know the iconic visage of a train attendant realizing every claustrophobics’ worst nightmare by manually stuffing seemingly indifferent commuters ever deeper into a train, lest the doors close. Metropolitan Japan, we are to believe, is guaranteed to induce visual overstimulation. What’s more difficult to capture however, is the equally baffling (and sometimes equally overstimulating) array of sounds. Yet these sounds, ranging from the gentle to the inescapable and from the unassuming to the bizarre, are an unmistakable part of the Japanese experience in their own right.

The first of these sounds I personally encountered as I touched ground at Kansai international airport for the first time, was that of Japanese toilets. With more buttons to press than in the average car, I was surprised to find that several produced an artificial flushing sound or even music, as I was desperately trialing and erroring my way to the one that actually flushed. Thinking the sounds were produced because I had wrecked the electronics with my button mashing at first, only later did I realize this served to hide any evidence of my taking a dump. The next sound hit me at the station, where an upbeat jingle introduced the train that would take me to Osaka proper. It wasn’t until, over many train rides, I slowly started to realize that most stations had (often ever so slightly) different jingles, that I really started to appreciate them. Probably my favorite sound of all is another one which did not stand out immediately, initially being outcompeted by the visual spectacle that Osaka offered, yet which distinctly grounded me in Japan over time. I didn’t know what to make of the high-pitched birdlike sounds at first, after I’d started to pick up on them; they sound neither truly mechanical nor convincingly real. It even took a while to connect them to the pedestrian street crossings, merged as they were with more prominent downtown sounds. I’m not sure why I took such a liking to them, why to me he chirps came to be synonymous with Japan over the course of my stay. Perhaps it is because of their uncanny contrast with reality, with actual birds being all but absent in the urban depths of Japan. What I do know is that a wave of nostalgia now washes over me every time I unexpectedly hear them in a video.

While sounds such as the ones described above gently simmer in the background, patiently waiting to be noticed, there’s also sounds that simply won’t allow you not to notice them. Walk down any of the major hubs in Osaka and your eardrums will be assaulted from every angle, not in the least by simple shops embroiled in a perpetual battle of on-upmanship through loudness. Suffice it to say that if you didn’t like J-pop beforehand, you most definitely won’t after a first visit to Japan. It’s equally hard to ignore the arcades when walking by them, always enticing me with their common-sense defying installations and peculiar ‘adults of all ages’ atmosphere, but always daunting me with the wall of sound they emit. This is hardly surprising as many of the most popular games revolve around music: from the iconic ‘Taiko no Tatsujin’ making you feel like an Edo drummer, to the frantic legwork of ‘dance dance revolution’, to ‘Maimai’ where you savagely slam your hands on any button that lights up to produce deafening EDM music. All spectacular to behold and hard on the ears in equal measure.

After surviving your first encounter with an Arcade you might be thinking your auditory system cannot be abused more, save perhaps for a visit to a nightclub. That is until you’ve become acquainted with another Japanese institution: the Pachinko parlor. Just like how one can become acutely aware of a ‘Lush’ store well over a hundred meters in advance, owing to its overwhelming bouquet of smells, so is the presence of a pachinko parlor in the vicinity equally unmistakable to the ears. Neither arcade nor full-fledged gamble den, they’re ubiquitous and difficult to comprehend to an outsider like me. There’s rows of machines where you try to drop balls in a particular slot in order to get more balls, all the while being engulfed in enough smoke and decibel to make you wonder whether you haven’t accidentally walked into an active warzone. I’ve ventured into one only twice, never daring to sit down and actually play: both out of an inability to truly understand them, and out of fear that neither my lungs nor my ears would survive the endeavor.

And so many more sounds, such as the peaceful bells on temple grounds, the energetic and endearing drum performances integral to festivals, or vans with megaphones shouting political one-liners, remain. Too many to describe, all of them especially Japanese in their own way. And so, nothing made me feel I had returned like the little chirps I heard at a crossing outside the airport when I visited Japan again after 2 years, instantly taking me back.

This blog was contributed by Tom de Hoop on June 5, 2021.

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