Travel & Culture

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Japanese culture and lifestyles through the eyes of NHK WORLD personalities

February 25, 2016

Ode to Earplugs

Peter Barakan / Freelance Broadcaster

Peter Barakan is an expert on diverse forms of popular music and a well-known TV/radio personality. On NHK WORLD, he hosts Japanology Plus.

Do you remember "Everybody's Talkin'," the song that Harry Nilsson sang on the soundtrack of "Midnight Cowboy"? In Japan it was released as "Uwasa no otoko," literally 'man of rumour,' though 'talk of the town' is probably a more natural English translation. If you know the lyrics you will already have realised that this is a misconception - Nilsson sings "Everybody's talkin' at me," not "... about me." That mistake in itself is indicative of how so many English expressions are mistranslated, either out of ignorance, or sometimes expediency, in Japan.

That would probably make a good subject for a column, but this one is more about the content of the song. It was written by Fred Neil, a singer/songwriter working in the folk music scene in New York in the early 1960s. He was no doubt referring to the abrasive nature of New Yorkers, and the song expresses a desire to escape to a more relaxing ocean environment. Tokyo is not quite so aggressive, but the agony of being talked at day in day out is just as acute.


Let's start with the trains: almost every train line now features automated announcements telling you the next station, along with information about which lines you can change to. They also tell you about special seats for the elderly and pregnant women, and admonish you to look out for suspicious objects, not to mention switching off your mobile phone when in the vicinity of priority seats, and refraining from talking on it elsewhere. That's in Japanese and English. Well, sort of. The English is weird. Not wrong exactly, but not said the way a native English speaker would say it, from the point of view of both grammar and intonation. Kind of grates on the nerves after a while...

Then after the automated bit, the conductor does a live recap in studiedly nasal droning Japanese, generally incorporating an apology for the fact that the train is running infinitesimally late, before thanking us for riding on that particular line. 90% of Japanese passengers seem to be so engrossed in whatever they are doing on their smartphones that they don't notice, so it may just be me; I prefer to read on the train, but the effort to shut out the relentless stream of verbiage is often more than I can manage.

To get to NHK I have to negotiate the 'scramble' crossing in front of Shibuya station which has become famous worldwide from a billion selfies. What those photos won't tell you is that the numerous giant video screens surrounding the crossing all have different ads and/or J-pop videos blaring out simultaneously at deafening volume. "Blade Runner" on steroids! Once you have crossed over and entered the shopping area known as 'Center-gai' you are then assaulted by more J-pop, and recently a pre-recorded English-language message about enjoying your shopping while making sure not to inconvenience other shoppers (or something like that - I have more success in tuning this one out).

There's plenty more, but I was only asked for 500 words, so you will need to imagine for yourselves the teeth-grating joys of the shinkansen and planes. And escalators! Grrrr...


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Peter Barakan / Freelance Broadcaster

Freelance broadcaster, born in London in 1951. B.A. in Japanese from SOAS, University of London. Moved to Tokyo in 1974, working in music publishing, then artist management, before going into broadcasting full time. Curates and presents music programmes on radio in addition to presenting Japanology Plus on NHK WORLD.

QuestionHow long have you been in Japan?
41 years and counting.
QuestionWhat was your original reason for coming to Japan?
I was offered a job in a music publishing company.
Question What's your favorite scenic spot in Japan?
I don't have a favourite, but I remember finding the view from the observation platform at Nachi Taisha shrine in Wakayama breathtaking.
Question What's the one thing that's essential to your life in Japan?
The internet - to keep in touch with the outside world.
Question What is your favorite Japanese word? Please briefly describe what it means in English.
No favourites in particular, but I like the sound of the native Japanese words, rather than the ones imported from Chinese, equivalent to words in English that come from Latin and Greek.


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