Now Reports

The Sound of Muzak

Shakespeare’s Orsino muses, “If music be the food of love, play on”. Byron claimed that “there’s music in all things if men had ears” to hear it. Abba said, “Thank you for the music”, specifically, ‘the songs we’re singing’. Can you spot the connection? Yes, that’s right: none of these people are Japanese. And I know why: because if they were, and were subject to the same constant, relentless, unfailingly irritating music that you hear absolutely everywhere over here, they wouldn’t be singing about it. In Japan there truly is ‘music in all things’ – but how can people stand it?

I recently went to beautiful Kumamoto to see Mount Aso. Unfortunately, we were prevented from climbing right up the cauldron because the gas levels were dangerously high. Since it was such a sunny day, however, we were quite happy to just walk around and appreciate the beauty of the natural surroundings. It was pure peace: so still, so perfect, the silence broken only by the ripples of children’s laughter and- wait a minute, that last bit wasn’t quite true. The serenity of this picture was broken by the deep, resonant ‘thud’ of a marimba. A huge marimba. I turned round, and to my utter disgust I saw a pair of giant speakers towering over me from above a shop. Suddenly I was assaulted with loud, fast music that sounded like a cross between the theme-tune from ‘The Magic Roundabout’ at 180bpm and the cries of a beached whale begging to be shot in the face. This was, my friends, no pleasant sound, no soothing melody to ease you into the visual delights that lay before you, no aural blanket in which to wrap yourself.

This was evil.

I turned immediately to a Japanese woman who stood but five meters away from me – “What are they doing?” I asked in despair. “Sumimasen?” “That bloody music- what’s it for?” It was no use; she must have been deaf. I asked her friend, who spoke English. “Why are they playing this music?” I yelled. “It adds atmosphere,” she explained. “Atmosphere? How? Does this really enrich your experience?” I asked incredulously. “Well, I don’t really notice it”. It was at this point that I left, a bemused man, a broken man, a broken man with some considerably annoying marimba music in my head.

I was puzzled. The reason for my dismay was, of course, my naive gaijin status. This is just Japan, man – just as everything has its god, everything also has its jingle. But whereas gods are invisible, benevolent, ever-present phenomena, jingles are about as subtle as a frying pan to the face. I wake up in the morning with the Best Denki tune in my head; I shower to Bic-bic-bic-bic Camera, I eat breakfast to the Yodobashi Camera theme. Soon I’ll be crapping to the strains of the Aflac duck. I’ve stopped going to my local supermarket because they aren’t content with the natural noises of a supermarket and their workers welcoming me with irasshaimase, irasshaimase! Instead they treat me to tape recordings ofノ yes, supermarket noises and a guy shouting irasshaimase, irasshaimase! on an endless (and I mean endless) loop. That’s not all; wait until cherry blossom viewing season, when you’re enjoyment (and sanity) is likely to be interrupted by the heartfelt crooning of an old guy and his karaoke boombox. And, next time you visit Shintencho in Tenjin, see if you can make out what’s playing through the speakers, behind the noises of people shopping and walking around; that’s right, a recording of people shopping and walking around! And don’t get me started on Pachinko Parlors – I’m pretty sure that even if one were empty, you’d still hear metal balls clinking, people shouting and life savings being slotted away.

Can anything save us from the acoustic hell that is shopping (and hill-walking) in Japan? I’m beginning to doubt it. Although I’ll admit that I almost missed it when I returned home to Edinburgh for Christmas. Crossing the road felt mundane; there was no gentle, lilting melody to ease you on your way. Supermarkets felt eerily quiet, electronic goods shops desolate; high-streets in general were just boring. Hitchcock said that he’d rather his audience was confused than bored; it seems that Benzaiten, the Shinto Goddess of Music, would rather have us unbearably irritated than bored. And within five minutes of being back in Japan, I realized that’s exactly how I felt. Even while he celebrates it, the Bard’s Orsino does go on to warn us of the dangers of too much music: “Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting/ The appetite may sicken, and so die”. My appetite has sickened, died, and been reborn as the Japanese Jingle-hating God, Jinglor! I’m taking Benzaiten on, and I’m doing it for gaijin everywhere. I’m doing it for Aso, man.


By Drummond Moir, Scottish, Closet Jingle Junky

Originally published in Fukuoka Now magazine (fn86 Feb. 2006)


Fukuoka City
Published: Feb 1, 2006 / Last Updated: Jun 13, 2017

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