My life in Tokyo is not particularly musical, but nor is it quiet. I am not just talking about the oppressive drone of construction and traffic. In this city, every crosswalk, train station, park bench, home appliance, and political campaign is an excuse to make sound: cute, customized, bizarre, creative tones for me to capture and share. Look for a new sound every week or two.
Tokyo is imagined by many as a high-tech Blade Runner fantasy playland, but this misses the point. Japan’s technology is no more advanced than any other wealthy nation; in fact, sometimes it is oddly retro. Brick and mortar video stores abound, cash beats credit cards, home insulation is unheard of, and corporate websites often look like DIY Geocities sites from the 90’s. What sets Japan, and especially Tokyo, apart, is its ability to trick out its technology with convenient features and flair. They have the same smartphones, but here they are studded with jewelry and dangling figurines. Rice cookers have timers so you can wake up to hot rice; toilets have deoderizers and noise makers to disguise the true nature of their business. Every bus and city office and tourist attraction has a cute mascot with doey eyes and little feet. So it should come as no surprise that the subway system, which is an engineering marvel itself in terms of reliability and cleanliness, is accompanied by unique station chimes. This is one of my favorite parts of exploring Japan; you never know when the closing doors and babbling conductor will be heralded by a new charming diddly. I may have to do a second installment on this theme because I am always finding more, but here is sampler to get you started.
The main purpose of the Tokyo train chimes is safety. All those sprinting salarymen need to know when the doors are about to close so they can start skipping steps on the stairs and turn sideways to squeeze into the subway car. The original chimes were simply bells, then electronic buzzers. In 1989, Shinjuku and Shibuya, two of the cities biggest commuter hubs (and the setting for Lost in Translation), introduced signature jingles. Now they are just about everywhere, although often an entire line will use the same tune rather than each stop having its own. Many large stations do have identifiable songs, which are often tied to the local culture. Takadanobaba station, for example, took the theme song from the famous anime cartoon Atom Boy, which was created in the area.
The inclination to customize technology with personal flair is a striking feature of Japanese culture. It cuts against the equally striking level of conformity. Every man on the train might wear a plain black suit, but each one has a unique little charm hanging off of his cell phone. This apparently is one of the corners of culture marked off for self-expression, like the schoolgirls accessorizing their school uniforms. The hushed and hurried commute, punctuated by charming snippets of melody, for me, presents a similar paradox. A simple “ding-dong” could serve the same purpose, but they chose to mix practicality with personality, orderly conformity with character. The guidebooks always introduce Japan as a contradiction of old and new, traditional and modern. But for me this is a more interesting balance: great appreciation for sameness and order along side an obsession with cute characters and quirky fashions. I know, train melodies as a metaphor for cultural paradox may be a stretch, but I will say this: Japan is not just black suits and frozen faces, nor is it an island populated by pokemon and hello kitties. It is a little bit of both, and as one of those black suits on the train, each station chime is a nice reminder that I am commuting on the world’s most clean, orderly, efficient, and charming subway system.