What’s That Neighborhood Music? The 5pm Chime

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Photo by Alpha 2008
July 15, 2014

I recently met up with a couple of fellow explorers for some weekend haikyo adventures here in Japan. It was their first time visiting the country and until meeting me they’d been on the road with only themselves for company. Quite a feat for two foreigners with no knowledge of the country or language!

It had been a while since I’d spent time with guests from overseas, and like any good tourist, they were keen to pepper me with questions about everything they found strange or surprising in Japan. I was happy to oblige, but also surprised to find just how accustomed I’d become to Japan and its customs!

One particular question my friends asked me was about the curious music that plays from loudspeakers in more local towns and housing districts.

Have you ever been outside in your neighborhood around dusk? If so, you might have heard this mysterious music yourself. It drifts softly from loudspeakers as the sun sets on the horizon and can be quite a surprise the first time you hear it – perhaps even a little creepy!

It’s known as the ‘5pm Chime’ (五時のチャイム) or, more officially (and tellingly), the ‘Municipal Disaster Management Radio Communication Network’ (市町村防災行政無線). That should give you some clue as to what it is for, and why you’ve probably never really understood it. After all, if all you’ve ever heard is eerie chimes or music at dusk, that likely means you’ve not experienced any major disasters (a good thing!)

Officially then, the speaker network is part of a nationwide system set up around most villages, towns and cities to warn residents in the case of emergency – especially disaster warnings for tsunamis and informational broadcasts in response to earthquakes.

Some systems are also set up to broadcast announcements of severe weather, fire, suspicious persons, dangerous wildlife or simply just public announcements of community events or activities. It’s most often heard early in the morning or late in the afternoon and can be a blessing or a curse, depending on your sleep patterns.

But despite all these important uses, the one we hear most often is undoubtedly the 5pm chime. It’s an instrumental version of ‘Yuyaku Koyake’ (夕焼け 小焼け), a Japanese children’s folk song dating back to 1919. The beloved music is used as both a daily safety check to ensure the broadcast system and speakers are working correctly, and also to remind children that playtime is over and that they should return home before dark.

The time varies depending on the season and locality, but the song generally plays between 4-6pm, so just hang around a set of local speakers around that time and you should hear the song. Alternatively, if you’re a night-owl like me, you might find yourself inadvertently using it as your alarm clock on lazy weekends.

Have you heard this song in your neck of the woods? Some localities have different songs, so let me know in the comments if you have heard something different!

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  • Claudia

    That song is cool. In Iwakuni (Yamaguchi Prefecture) we have a regular siren. I tell my husband that they are releasing the Kraken, lol.

  • Nathan Shanan Crookes

    I live in a small community called Ato in Hiroshima prefecture. We have the chime song play 5:30 followed by public announcements of public events etc….and one at 7:30 am,which can be a bit annoying if you have a sleep in that day haha.

    • That 7:30am one would get annoying real fast for me.

  • サビーネ

    I lived in Awajicho, in the middle of Tokyo for 3 months and on my first evening I tried to get some sleep against the jetleg. It happened to be the 5 o’ clock song that let me jump out of the bed and set me in pure confusion xD

  • John Mullins

    That’s pretty.

  • Ariana Coveney

    I’ve heard them in my area all over the prefecture of Kumamoto. The locals on Yakushima that I talked to a few years ago told me it also chimes throughout the day. They said it helps the farmers know when to wake up, take a lunch break, and go home for the day.

  • Limor Stark

    I live in Ofunato shi (Iwate-ken). At 7 am we have ‘Edelweiss’ (Sound of Music) and at 5 pm we have ‘Yesterday’ by John Lennon and in Kuji shi the Ama chan theme song plays at 5pm.

  • Cubs97322

    In Kawagoe, it plays daily at 5 p.m. – known as the “5 o’clock Song” at our house. I’d read that it was used to call the kids home for dinner.

  • Musouka

    We have nothing of the sort in Yokohama 🙁

  • In Awajishima “Going Home” by Dvorak is played every evening at 5:00. It is a beautiful piece of music and one of the things I miss most about Awajishima…

    • jbuman22

      This is what is played in Ebina, as well, though I didn’t know the actual song until I just checked it. Thanks for the info!

    • vitacitx

      We spent a day in Takayama and I got surprised at 5 p.m. with this piece of Dvorak’s (From the New world). Esoecially it was touching for us being from the Czech Republic to hear our composer’s work :).

  • Eva L.

    The 5PM chime goes off daily in my neighborhood. I never knew what they were saying or why it went off, and at first I did find it creepy. It reminded me of the “Hunger Games.”

  • tomer gilron

    When I volunteered in Ofunato after the tsunami they used “yesterday” by the beatles as their 5pm chime.

  • CptNerd

    In Monzennakacho/Fukugawa I heard something a bit different, I didn’t recognize it but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t this.

  • Kendra Beadlescomb

    Every day at 7pm and 5pm they play a song different than this one, I’m not sure what it is though. And it’s not softly playing it is shrilly BLARING! But the speakers are directly outside of my window too… Also, every day at 11:30am they play “Greensleeves”. Soooo loud…. lol

  • Where I previously lived there was nothing at all. At least I couldn’t hear anything.
    Where I live now, the song plays exactly at 6 p.m.
    It’s a song that is unique to our small city, though. 😉

  • The Nat

    I heard one in Miura this year and it was around 4pm. I had travelled there to do some J-drama location photography and heard chimes and a recorded female voice. I asked the guy I was with what it was and he told me it was to tell the children to return home. I travelled around a few towns in Japan this year but Miura was the only place I remember hearing anything like this. I loved these nice considerations that Japan has.

  • Walking towards Nakadai Undou Kouen in Narita city, I heard some unusual announcements during the middle of the day.

  • Cubs97322

    Thanks for the great post! In Kawagoe, the song is called 野バラ or “Wild Rose.” I found a recording of it on YouTube with the sakura in bloom. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-XbE2dbA7RU

  • Mieko

    I remember hearing the Chime in Hatsudai as I was walking back to my apartment once… I couldn’t tell you what the song was though…

  • Maiku

    My first morning in Japan was at a small town, Ibaraki mach, near Mito. The town sits on lake Hinuma. An early morning walk around the lake, watching the sunrise was ‘interrupted’ by the morning chime. It was magical. Early morning walking is such a great way to ‘feel’ new places. In Japan I look forward to each towns chimes when the community is still waking.

    Beyond the charm/aggravation factor the speakers are an indicator of Japan’s well networked organisation. Although I could do without trying to translate machine gun style announcements: is this a tsunami? Earthquake warning? NO its….local clean up your garden day!!

  • Christoffer Callegård

    Things like these make me remember the time I had in Japan, creating very emotional connections to the country for a gaijin living there and experiencing it daily. I as Maiku used to do early morning walks enjoying the nice melodies.

  • crella

    On Awaji Island, we have a song at noon, too, Love Is Blue. We had one at 10 pm, I assume to announce the last ferry of the night, but they stopped that one about two years ago.

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