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Saturday, Nov. 20, 2010


Everyone chime in . . .

Classes start early on our island — 6 a.m. every day, even on Sundays. At least that's what any teacher visiting for the first time would think. This is because there is a "chime" that sounds over the island's PA system at 6 a.m., which lets islanders know that it is time to wake up. The chime happens to be the same one used in public schools throughout Japan to indicate the beginning and end of classes.

Chimes, still heard in the countryside in Japan, are a hangover from the past when people didn't have watches and spent their days in the fields harvesting rice and vegetables. Farmers had to wake up early to tend their fields in the cool of the morning. The chime sounded again at 12 for lunch, a signal for everyone to stop working, sit down under the shade of a tree, and eat their obento lunch. The 5 p.m. chime indicates the working day is finished. The chime sounds one last time at 9 p.m. indicating it is time for bed. Early to bed, early to rise.

Many tourists are surprised when they visit the island and hear this chime. One person who was particularly annoyed by it described it as "military music." Now, when I think of military music, I think of "Taps" also played at the end of the day in the military (and at funerals, a more final end of a day). But our chime isn't nearly that nice. Our island's chimes sound more like simple bars on a children's electric keyboard that merely go up and down the scale once, and then repeat.

Most tourists are so confused by the chimes, they can't imagine what they are for. "What's that noise?" they always ask. Interesting word choice, isn't it? Not chime, not melody, not sound, but noise. Indeed, it would make a good Lynyrd Skynyrd song. (C'mon, everyone: "Ooooh that noise, Can't you hear that noise? Ooooh that noise . . .")

Hey, the "noise" could be worse. At least it's not that annoying beeping sound trucks make when they back up (which, by the way, is designed to be annoying so that people will take notice). And chimes are a lot better than the noon fire station whistle we had in the U.S. when I was growing up. But I do think the chime is outdated — they should be using ringtones.

There are some creative ringtones these days, even natural ones that would more appropriately reflect island life. Like quacking ducks. Only problem is, over a PA system, it would sound like a giant duck invasion every morning. Now, it just sounds like a giant classroom change. Perhaps the chime is really for the schools of fish in the port.

Or how about playing songs? "Beethoven's Fifth" at 6 a.m. would surely be more effective getting people out of bed. Noon time could be heralded by Men at Work's song "Down Under" where you can get a Vegemite sandwich. The 5 p.m. tune would be Johnny Paycheck's 1980s hit "Take this Job and Shove it." And Japan's favorite, "Auld Lang Syne," for the 9 o'clock evening chimes would surely put anyone straight to sleep.

It would be difficult to get everyone to agree on what songs to play, however. And you know how adamant Japan is about coming to consensus on things. At least with the current chimes we can reach consensus: No one is particularly repelled nor enthralled by them.

The chime at 6 a.m. doesn't bother me, mainly because it means one thing — I don't have to get out of bed yet! It's like someone waking you up every morning just to tell you you've got another couple hours of sleep. You feel so lucky! And who doesn't like to roll over and go back to sleep? It's like a snooze alarm but better, because the next chime doesn't come until noon, so it doesn't demand that you get up. Suggest that you're a lazy old sod? Maybe.

As islanders, like the tides rising and falling every six hours, we are so used to the chimes that we hardly take notice of them. The point of the chimes in this day and age is probably just to keep everyone in sync. It's the same idea as the ferries, which incidentally, run like clockwork. Why have one ferry constantly running back and forth all day long when you can get everyone to synchronize their actions by congregating at the port at a certain time, and collectively boarding the ferry? It's all part of the island harmony.

Once you get used to this synchronicity, you appreciate it. You know that no mainland guests can arrive at times other than when the ferry arrives and no package can arrive at some odd time of the day. There is no wondering what time the UPS man or the TV repair man will show up.

Which got me thinking. Maybe we could just stop all the ferries completely. Stop the movement of people! Then we could all just sit around and party all day long, watch the tides come and go, and every morning roll over and go back to sleep!

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