Walking from my room to my classes here in Taipei takes about 20 minutes, which ironically is as much time as all my commutes in backwater Japan except the Natsume Soseki Memorial Climb over the mountain and into the big city. I keep myself occupied the same way here as there: radio. It helps me get used to a language’s sound even when I can’t understand the words.
My entire time in Japan, I kept my car radio on one station. It had everything I wanted, plus the only consistent signal in the county and no commercials. Its tagline was a piano playing fragile, pretty chords as a girl with a fragile, pretty voice said in English, “Believe in music. Believe in voice. NHK-FM.” I felt like they were saying to the tired Tokyo salaryman, “It’s a complicated world, but we’re right here by your side.” I didn’t like it then, but now I do.
NHK’s biggest contribution to Japanese culture is its morning radio exercises. Everyone in the country knows how to do them. All the schools in the country use this same routine to ritually warm up for sports matches. I think you have to see it to believe it:
There’s a scene in “Norwegian Wood,” a Haruki Murakami novel, where one roommate wakes the other up at the exact same time every morning, at the part of the exercise where the music speeds up and the guy tells you hop up and down. The sleepyhead eventually works up the courage to ask his roommate to cut just that one part out of his routine, but the early riser says that would be impossible: the exercises are perfect, and nothing can be added or taken away.
Besides the exercises, NHK plays classical music on weekday mornings. It was nice to have a hot cup of high culture before I stepped into elementary school every day. I knew I was out of work early when I heard American pop songs, which play in the late afternoon.
From 5-7 PM, our island (Kyushu) has a show broadcast from NHK Fukuoka with the most gracious DJ I’ve ever heard in my life. She was a woman in her 30s with a lovely voice, and she only talks about herself to say things like “When I stepped outside today, I was chilly…I hope you’re all taking care of yourselves!” or “I’ve been meaning to clean my home, but gosh, somehow I never get around to it!” or “I agree with you, that IS great!” Every week, there’s a different conversation topic, such as “Graduation” or “Autumn” or “Sakamoto Ryoma.” Listeners would submit their thoughts on these topics along with musical requests. I don’t remember anyone ever calling into the national radio station and talking: instead, they sent e-mails and let the professionals read them on air. For example, this DJ would say, her heart bubbling with empathy:
“Emi from Miyazaki says, ‘In winter, my favorite thing to do is get in a big hot bath, relax, and eat oranges. It helps me forget all the stress of my day. I think oranges are especially delicious in winter, in the bath.’ Thank you so much, Emi!!! I love to do that, too! Emi’s request is ‘First Love’ by Utada Hikaru. She says she always hums it when the leaves start to fall from the trees. Everyone, please enjoy this song!”
I thought it was a perfect program. If I want to hear a song I don’t have, I can call it up on YouTube. With an iPhone, I can do that anywhere. The NHK program wasn’t really about hearing your song: it was about sharing your experiences with a community. I never wrote in, but I felt like I was a member, and hearing other people share their memories and daily habits was disarming.
7:00 was the starting time for the half-hour news broadcast. If I was in the car when it started, I made myself stay there until it was finished, even when I was hungry after a long swim. I was amazed they could make the program exactly 30 minutes long every day without any commercials, live, with no mistakes. They’d cover about four national stories a day, usually giving daily updates of things like the Toyota sticky-brakes scandal and the confusion over the future of the American base in Okinawa. It was just the facts. (Though they were using discretion to describe what was newsworthy.) I knew the hard part was over when they said, “Tsugi wa, sports desu.” 7:20 meant the local news and the weather. My last months in the country, I could finally follow the whole thing.
At 7:30, a long program starts, often a live or a previously recorded symphony with commentary. Later at night, there are short news updates right on the hour interspersed with programs featuring contemporary Japanese pop and rock music. The theme for a program starting was a few radar bleeps symbolizing that you were in range, then a relaxing acoustic guitar theme which faded under the host’s voice. Stay up late enough – I think it’s 2 AM – and you’ll hear this tune. I think it’s the traditional end-of-programming song, and now it’s telling you it’s quite late:
Saturday afternoon means “Saturday! Hotto…requesto!” It’s a lot like American radio. A cheerful DJ duo, male and female, bring in pop musicians and groups for interviews while playing their songs. One time, there was a program about school songs. Every school in the country has its own song, and people sent in recordings of their alma mater’s tunes for the rest of the country to hear.
I confirmed two things and learned a third from this show: (1) Japanese people are so polite that even the rock musicians have impeccable manners; (2) they love to talk about food; (3) they used the words “foreign countries” and “foreigners” a great deal. A lot of the musicians had toured abroad, so they talked about their experiences and how foreign music and culture differed from their own. I think it also points to a psychological difference: in America, we sometimes say “he’s German” or “he’s Mexican” or “she’s Korean,” so even when we’re just guessing, we’re trying to place someone somewhere specific, or compare specific places. In Japan, it’s more common to refer to everyone who’s not Japanese as a foreigner and to talk about differences between Japan and everywhere else.
4-5 PM on Saturday afternoon is a goofy chat program. The speakers were two guys, a girl, and the pianist, who never spoke but often answered questions by playing songs. Sometimes they ask a question, then take emails from the audience and read them aloud. Sometimes the readers say strange things, but the hosts politely say “Hmmm, that’s one way to look at it!” rather than putting the listener down. My favorite gimmick is where they pick a topic like “What’s piling up in your closet because you’re not sure if you should get rid of it or not?” and they’d each go in a circle and tell stories until two people in a row couldn’t answer. One person was saving condiments, because he wasn’t sure how long they’d stay good; for another it was tupperware, because she wasn’t sure how much is enough. Every time they passed it on to the next person, a jangly acoustic guitar played the famous “Tequila!” lick.
5-6 PM has interviews with interesting accomplished people (such as a professor researching dreams). At the end of the interview, the subject requests a song. From 7:00 on Saturday night, there’s a live classical music program. Young professional musicians come to the Tokyo studio, play several pieces, and do interviews. This was one of my favorite shows, and I always heard it when I went back over the mountain in the dark after attending Mass in the city.
Sunday morning has classical music early. Next, there’s an international music program, which covers a different domain each week from like Latin American music and Sousa marches. The rest of the morning is about traditional Japanese music. They interview koto players, folk singers, and the like and play tunes you’d otherwise only hear at local festivals. Sunday afternoon, I think, is basic radio shows again. Some shows still tried contests where they read lyrics and had people guess where the song came from – but now that there’s Google, the audience was right 99% of the time!
The word “Japan” often reminds me of driving through rice fields in the early morning, seeing students biking to school in uniform, and listening to NHK. I didn’t expect to remember commuting so distinctly, but maybe it’s like that for everyone. I never gave it much importance, but I probably spent more time on it than I did on most of my official hobbies. Over a career, the time adds up into months, even years spent in transit. I’m grateful that even those hours in the country were sweet ones.