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Saturday, Feb. 25, 2012

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

The sounds of not much silence


Patience . . . People say the Japanese are born with it.

With the Japanese brain composed of a frontal lobe, a temporal lobe, a parietal lobe and a patience lobe.

This happens when you live forever under the whims of Mother Nature. Earthquakes. Tsunamis. Typhoons. Mudslides. Volcanoes. Either you learn to take it. Or you move safely away. Which isn't easy when you live on an island.

And perhaps this patience is why Japanese can also put up with so much noise. For I tell you, this is a noisy, noisy place.

With your response being predictable . . .

"What was that? Say again?"

This (volume up) is a Noisy, Noisy Place. To live in Japan — especially urban Japan — is like residing in an orchestra pit during tune-ups. Tune-ups that everybody tunes out and tolerates. And the noise doesn't resonate. It collides. Luckily we are not champagne flutes or everyone would shatter. So if you feel a bit cracked, now you know why.

Want a sample? Then go shopping.

Especially along a shopping street just before suppertime. Where the clerks and shopkeepers pepper the crowd with "Irasshaimase!" — "Welcome!" — as if such shouts were a kind of bait.

To reel in the customers you have to first hook them with an earsplitting "Irasshaimase!" Otherwise, they may swim down the street to some other shop. Which is why everyone everywhere is screaming.

Or for more of the same drop into a major appliance shop. Where clerks will also shotgun the crowds with irasshaimases, but now these must rise over the added blast of muzak.

Powerful muzak. The kind that can reanimate the dead.

Each separate counter might have its own CD player, with its own jingle-jangled sales pitch set at full volume — usually 100 decibels, similar to the sound level of a chainsaw. And playing on continuous loop.

To maneuver such aisles is to run a gauntlet of noise. Don't retailers ever ponder the sales effectiveness of so much sound? I know I do. For as soon as possible, I escape for the calm of the city streets.

The relative calm of the city streets. Where cars and scooters and bicycles jar the air with rumbles, putters and infernal squeakings. Where pachinko shops roar with waterfalls of unending noise. Where politicians stand at the station and shout double-speak at the commuters. Where, if you're lucky, a rightwing broadcast van might rumble past, piping out patriotic marches loud enough to be heard even across the seas.

And where one must still deal with the irasshaimases.

Need a break? Well, how about a trip to the good ol' ballpark? Where you can relax in the stands with a brew and a bento, while you listen to the crisp crack of bat on ball.

Forget it. All game noise will be erased by the cheering sections. Which regale the stadium nonstop with trumpet calls, cheers and songs. To sit anywhere near them is to embrace a whirlwind of racket.

Most cheer groups — often several hundred strong — burn more calories than the ballplayers. They thunder with energy, employing cheers as a means to reduce their workaday stress.

While at the same time they ladle reverse stress on anyone not from their group, who might only want to enjoy the game.

Then . . . how about a restful walk in the park? Again forget it. For here noise grows on trees.

Which — in August and September — are home to the cicadas. Whose piercing chirps can grow so deafening that one cannot even hear the cawing of the crows.

OK, so how about at home? In the peaceful neighborhoods of Japanese suburbia?

Right. Where my neighbors' houses lean against mine almost as if the homes were in a huddle. So close that parts of outside conversations step through the walls like ghosts and can spook you at any moment.

"Sit!" screams my neighbor. "Sit, sit, sit!" So I do. At once. Until I realize she is training a puppy and not her foreign neighbor. "And no more pissing on the floor!" All right, all right, if she insists.

Next are the delivery trucks, backing down our road with their robotic, "Beep, beep, beeps." And the "junk collecting" wagon and other roaming merchants, broadcasting their way past our enclave of houses.

And at night? At night we have the rev and roar of motorcycle gangs from a major road half a kilometer away. And then the romantic caterwauling of the local felines.

My finest chance at quiet comes late in the evening, when my wife and I settle back with a glass of wine. Until I ask about her day.

. . . And then the floodgates open.

"Well, today I taught basic vocabulary. Want to hear my lesson plan? I had 43 steps. First, I read the roll. Second, I took a piece of chalk and had everyone repeat, "Cho-ku, cho-ku, cho-ku. Third . . ."

Like I said . . . patience.

It's best if you're born with it. But if not, never fear.

Japan will give you practice.



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