Those of us who live in Japanese cities spend a good slice of our day in the subway or on a train. This is fine by me, as long as I’ve got something to read and somewhere to sit. Whenever either of those criteria are impossible (i.e., usually), I’m perfectly content to strap-hang and listen to podcasts on the iPod. The iPod and its rivals are a godsend here. Some old romantics lament that nobody talks to strangers on the train anymore and that we’re all lost in our solitary wired worlds thanks to personal stereos. On the Osaka subway, at any rate, thank God for that – I’ve lived here on and off since the 90s and in all that time the only strangers who have ever spoken to me (other than to ask directions) have been lunatics or cultists (“Same t’in’,” as they say in Jamaica). If an episode of Bush Telegraph keeps them at bay, so much the better. Besides, the alternative to the iPod during rush hour has always been to stare quietly at the back of someone’s head while listening to insipid public service announcements (“Everyone – it’s Rainy Season. Let’s make sure not to leave our umbrellas on the train.”) and the occasional advert.
Lately, on the subway at least, there are no alternatives. Since about October, the recorded announcements on the Midosuji Line (the main artery of Osaka) have had their volume and pitch changed noticeably. During certain times of the day, it’s now impossible to drown out the announcements without cranking the iPod (which I refuse to do). Now, I have no problem with the clear announcing of upcoming stations (I’ve been to Montreal, where the drivers indistinctly mutter the station names under their breath over the PA, like a quiet French curse), but I do object to advertising which is louder than the name of the station. I take the same route to work five days a week. Lately, what makes me grate my back fillings into fine toxic powder twice a day is the announcement – delivered by a computerized female in a tone of enthusiastic hysteria – for Daikokucho Station: “Mai Sutairu Weddingu! Za Gurando Chiara Osaka!” (My style wedding! The Grand Tiara Osaka!). The Grand Tiara is a garish wedding hall near the station. I don’t know what bothers me more – the fact that the ad is louder than the announcement of the station or all that mispronounced faux-English. There are no articles in the Japanese language (and no ‘th’ sounds), but the random placing of Za – the –is trendy in Japanese advertising now. It sounds as wonderfully cosmopolitan to them as it sounds hopelessly provincial to me. It irritates me so much that I now take slower but quieter JR trains on my days off – anything to avoid that tiara.
The irony is that the average Japanese is inundated with announcements, commercials, bells, whistles, all day and most commuters don’t even hear what is being screeched at them any more. The Japanese I’ve read about who do complain are usually fanatics (or are portrayed as such), who don’t want any announcements at all, ever. The only people who seem to notice the difference are those, like me, who wear personal stereos. Perhaps there’s a fear that we’ve been escaping the announcements. It’s just Osaka city government’s little way of bringing us back into the group.