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the halls of valhalla

October 7, 2004

I am sitting in the staffroom of the elementary school. All the windows are open. Just outside, the school orchestra are practising. They all play brass instruments. They are playing one of Smap’s greatest hits. Their version sounds exactly like the music that I imagine greets the souls of dead warriors on their arrival at the halls of Vallhalla.

They have been practising every morning from about 8:30 in preparation for the school Sports Day on Sunday. The weird thing is, they play over the top of whatever jolly morning music is blasting out of the school’s PA system (which has speakers outside, so I can clearly hear it from my house, a hundred yards or so away. The sound of the band playing, apparently unconcerned, against entirely unrelated background music makes me feel a very strange sort of discomfort.

In fact, Japan relationship with background noise generally seems quite different from the UK… (Never one to miss a chance to jump from talking about a single incident to making sweeping generalisations, me). Public announcement systems are a case in point – I remember one morning last year, maybe three months after I arrived, when I woke up one morning to the mobile-phone–ringtone synthesiser version of Fur Elise that blares out of speakers all round my house at 6:30 every weekday morning, and I thought how stupid it would be – how completely gutting – if the reason I end up having to pack this otherwise excellent situation in after a year is just that I can’t handle hearing this horrible fucking music every morning any more. (Fortunately nowadays I’ve got used enough to it that I sleep through it most mornings… it seems quieter, too. Maybe someone did complain…)

I’ve lost count of the number of times Y has come round to my house, put on a cd out of habit, and then, a few minutes later, picked up my guitar or sanshin and started picking out a tune that has nothing to do with what’s playing on the hi-fi.

Another thing that has struck me in Japanese department stores is the background sound of several competing jingles all playing over the top of each other. The result often makes me feel quite uneasy, and I wonder how it affects people who have to work there all day. I’m sure it can’t be any good for their mental health. Mind you, I doubt it could be worse than having to listen to Paul McCartney’s horrible “Simply Having A Wonderful Christmas Time” all day on repeat play, which is what British shop-workers have to put up with for about three months of the year.

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