Loudness in Tokyo

Just as I was lathering up in the shower, Akiko Murakami came right into the shower. She’s running for mayor, so I wasn’t surprised. Every election season, the same thing happens.


To be honest, she herself was not actually in the steam with me. She was outside, waving from her truck and talking into a microphone connected to rooftop loudspeakers. The sound easily blasted through my walls and into my shower.


And actually, I just made up that name, but it’s always the same for every mayoral candidate. Their voices, at least, all enter my home during every campaign. People in every country might feel there is no escape from politics, but in Tokyo, politics invades your house whether you are showering, reading, snoozing, or having breakfast.


Tokyo’s pre-election season is publicly loud. Trucks with candidates cruise through streets. The candidates and campaign staff inside, all wearing white gloves, repeat—very, very loudly—their names, slogans and pledges to everyone listening, which is everyone, because you can’t escape, even safe at home.


“Do they drive around in trucks in America like that?” my ex-student assistant asked me. “No, they’d get shot,” I answered. But in Japan, most people, lacking guns and interest both, just ignore them. Shutting out loud noises, irritating people, slow-moving crowds, high prices and daily aggravations is a Tokyo skill. Doing that from the comfort of home is even easier.


Because Japan’s neighborhood streets are so narrow, and there is no street-side parking at all, the sound penetrates the thin walls of the houses. In my area, cars have to slow down to pass each other, and have to back up to find a wider space along many of the streets. So, they don’t even have to turn the volume too high; it echoes down the tight-packed rows of homes and small apartments and flows inside.


In front of the train stations, candidates set up flags, hand out leaflets, and stand politely to campaign. Their speeches are not too long, since most people shoot right past them on their way home or to work. They rarely stop to listen, but catch a few minutes of their promises whether they like it or not.


One evening a couple weeks ago, I was surprised to run into one of my former students who lives in my area. He was campaigning in front of the station for one of the mayoral candidates. He stopped me as I hurried past the candidate and his over-amplified speakers. My student told me how he was sick of the old politics and how much he wanted to see change. The campaign felt that much closer, physically personally. It was politics un-mediated, or perhaps de-media-ted.

Outside my station,lurking with microphone in hand…


One morning during last year’s election, I was riding my bike to the station and I saw a campaign truck for Naoto Kan, the former Prime Minister. I read his name on the big sign draped over the truck, and thought, “So, he’s got people to do that for him.” But, I was wrong. He was standing right there, on a small bridge over the train tracks. I stopped, startled.


The former Prime Minister, easily recognizable from TV and photographs, and talked fluently about his anti-nuclear stance. As an American, what startled me most was there being only two secret service men around him. The other three campaign staff in bright green jackets might have also been bodyguards, but they handed me a leaflet and chatted with me as he kept on with his loudspeaker speech.


You don’t have to be a potential assassin to realize how safe Japan really is if a former Prime Minister can still stand on the street–actually, on a wide-open footbridge—without any fear. He had chosen a good place to launch his speech into the surrounding living rooms and kitchens of my neighborhood. He was exercising democracy, along with, no doubt, people’s patience.


I told the aide I agreed with shutting down nuclear power plants, and he explained Naoto Kan’s other ideas. No one else had stopped to listen, though I knew they could hear from inside their homes. I advised him that letting foreigners with permanent resident status vote would be a nice democratic move. The aide said he’d pass that on. And I rode off to work.

Squeezing by on my bicycle


I hate the regular campaign noise as much as anyone, but it’s the novelty of campaigning in the streets, the closeness of it and the pleasantness of disruption, that appeals to me. Though I vote only in America, the politics of Japan is close, and even closer during campaign season.


Irritating as it is to be shouted at, and as easy as it is to be cynical, I like being reminded that politics is run by people, who talk and drive and pester voters in loud voices, who are, whether we listen to them or not, always right outside our door.

December 19, 2015

Good luck!

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