Is your life in Japan too simple? Have you mastered the language, the etiquette, the trains and the food? Well, please allow me to re-complicate your life by directing your attention towards that which is designed to go unnoticed: background music.
Background music (BGM), ambient music, retail music or as the French pianist and composer Erik Satie called it, musique d’ameublement (furniture music) exists everywhere in the world. But there is something distinctly different to the Japanese take on BGM that is worth noticing.
Intensely light, and quintessentially polite, this is extremely pleasant music.
It helps turn the average Japanese consumer experience into something unparallelled to the rest of the world.
So what and where are some of the BGM tracks you’re likely to hear in Japan?
Consider your daily trip to the convenience store — which in my case is the 7-Eleven — and how it is centered around their particular choice of BGM track, a cover of the Monkees’ “Daydream Believer.”
Sweet convenience bliss awaits thee
This song and the soundscape of the 7-Eleven use each other to render your convenience experience exceedingly agreeable. The congratulatory cheer of the staff as you walk in, “Irasshaimase! (Welcome!),” the clean floors and enticing aisles soon lull you into convenience paradise. After waiting in the queue, the cashier’s voice rings so sweetly, like a verbal chocolate on a hotel pillow: “Hai! Douzo! (Next, please!).” Her eyes sparkle behind a white mask. As you walk away, holding the plastic bag she so delicately folded, she chimes a wistful goodbye, “Arigatou gozaimashita! (Thank you!).” All as manufactured as a Monkees TV episode.
Japanese BGM is part of a brand’s image and as such it’s a carefully constructed element of a broader picture that you’re not really supposed to think too much about. Anyway, I end up whistling the tune for days.
Score: 10 cans of The Brew out of 10
With that in mind, let’s turn to that industrial giant, Don Quijote, and the jingle they play on repeat, 24/7, nationwide, like some sort of experimental art installation.
It’s hard not to get excited with Hanako-chan about that mop.
When this jam plays, you’ll forget all about the impending doom of climate change fuelled by rampant consumerism! Worry not about corporate overlords, sketchy labor laws and the plight of the modern employee’s indentured servitude. It’s difficult to forget such realities at your local cornucopia-of-goods outlet overseas; the decay of the empire shines brightly under the neon lights in Walmart. But Japan’s equivalent, Don Quijote, hides its retail nightmares under the cartoony chaos found therein. The music ties the illusion together like a well-placed rug does to a loft apartment.
Score: Six horse head masks out of 10
Hard Off/Book Off
Many BGM tracks are covers, lending them an air of familiarity, and if they aren’t covers, they are played on repeat until you damn well recognize them. Original songs and real instruments are too intense for BGM, so they are toned down into muted electric xylophone lead melodies, Casio keyboards, ’80s drums and jazzy synth chords. And few tracks are better than this golden classic from your friendly neighborhood Hard-Off, Book-Off and the other -Offs.
The katakanization of ‘blu-ray’ gets me everytime
Thrift stores outside of Japan are often just depressing. Dreary staff announcements play instead of BGM. Homeless folks shuffle the aisles like ghosts lost in a fog. The shelves are in disarray. There is a distinct smell. But, once again, like 7-Eleven, the song and the environment at the Off House franchise lean on each other. What is a gray, sombre, shameful shopping experience outside of Japan is transmuted into something colorful and cheerful here.
Score: Seven glowing shiba-inu night lights out of 10
Let’s step out of the world of retail and onto the platform of the Yamanote line. Like most (if not all) train stations in Japan, each has its own little jingle to remind you the train is about to leave.
Specially designed to induce mild panic in the listener
This is not unique to Japan, but it is not as ubiquitous elsewhere. In most places, you’ll get a curt announcement or something harsh like a mechanical bell. In Japan, you get a pleasant little melody that conveys the urgency of the conductor as he thinks, “Oh, please do hurry on the train, I would ever so hate for us to be late.” But the music says it for him. These train jingles push the boundaries of BGM because they are meant to inspire a mild sense of panic in the listener. They’re supposed to give you just that extra push to make it to the train on time. They’re a gentle plea to hurry up, like a lover’s whisper to wake up in the morning. And they’re fantastic.
Score: Eight limited express trains out of 10
Honorable Mention: Yodobashi Camera
Christmas, the glorious ‘80s and uptempo 2/4 drums will keep you shopping for hours!
Where some songs let you absorb mood by the gallon, BGM can only be sipped. If Led Zeppelin is a bottle of whisky and Elliott Smith is the smell of the perfume that the ex-you-really-loved left on a letter for you, then Japanese BGM is like a teaspoon of green tea. It’s light, but it’s there.
Yes, BGM is mild, but in Japan, it’s so distinctly mild. If the corporate and consumer world is here to stay, if we have to live with it, I’d rather wash it down with Japan’s sugary pleasantness any day of the week.