At five or six o’clock every day, chimes from a bell or siren resound around the streets of Tokyo, and indeed all over Japan. But what does the sound mean to you? Here, Tokyo-based writer Henry Watts shares some of his own ideas.

The Meaning of the Melody: Just a song, or paternalistic?

Everyday on the strike of 5 o’clock (in my area) an entrancing melody is played from loudspeakers that look like they were installed for propaganda purposes or doomsday warnings. The melody is majestic. It rings out during the warm tinge of dusk, its soothing notes wafting through the air like the scent of some distant doughnut van. It’s the perfect interval for Tokyo’s infamous hustle – a daily sedative in musical form.

It would be agreeable to leave it at that – to put it down as just a song – but when considering the absence of such a phenomenon in my own country – indeed in most other countries – I feel compelled to query its purpose. According to the Minato ward website, it’s played in order to test the loudspeakers for when a disaster strikes, so the sirens don’t let you down just when you need them. But this isn’t commonly known. In fact, the widely held belief is that it’s played in order to tell children that sunlight is fading and that it’s time to go home.

That seems sensible enough. You could postulate any number of reasons for why the evening would not be a fit place for children.

For one thing, decreased visibility and scampering children don’t mix well together. As an urban cyclist, I could vouch for that. But also, the onset of the evening usually brings with it the debauched sighs of tired-out salary men, whom having spent the day in the shackles of their companies might prefer instead to enjoy their evenings without the knowledge that there are impressionable and corruptible children wandering around. The melody therefore acts as a warning to all, including the children themselves.

Then to the question at hand, why is it the case that my countrymen don’t feel the need to issue such a warning? Do the British simply care less about the whereabouts of their children in the evenings?

Or could it be that their children are more independent and self-reliant? The evenings in London could certainly stand to have a few less kids on the streets, I’d say in my grumpy old-man voice.

At risk of stereotyping, the likely reason that no such warning exists in my country is because of fear of a “nanny state” – parents would probably resent the loudspeakers for their suggestive and disapproving tone. It places the sort of general expectations on parents that make that smug accusation – “well…the loudspeakers told you so” – always possible should any child run into any harm in the night.

Women-only train cars in Japan work on the same misguided principle of blame. If you’re a woman molested while riding a standard car at 8am, then the blame is implicitly placed on you. You should’ve gone to your designated women-only car, is the suggestion. Likewise, if you’re the parent of a mugged child, you should’ve known to call your child home earlier.

Of course, this is not to place a mild melodic warning on a par with the oppressive paternalism of gender segregated train cars. The latter is an utterly contemptible misunderstanding of gender equality. But both are different expressions of the same wider paternal tendency in Japan, for better or for worse.

It’s the same tendency that dispatches teams of old men to stand in front of minor construction work on streets where nobody goes, waving batons around like children swatting flies. These chaps are, depending on your view, either terribly sweet and devoted, or pitifully redundant.

If it at least means the elderly are cared for, or if it means I’m well supplied with wet napkins and plastic utensils when I buy my bento, I could probably support such a paternalism (and, I’m sure there is some connection between this tendency and my lost wallet being handed in to the police!)

However, there should be a very thick line drawn between this sort of paternalism – the one that looks out for me, and the other sort of paternalism – the one that watches over me, that claims to know what’s best for me, and that demands I listen. In other words, a charming but suggestive twilight melody is about my upper limit.

If you would like to share your opinions on any aspect of life in Tokyo with readers, email the editor with your ideas.

Main image: Bunny Bissoux