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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