Touring Japan with a van and loudspeakers


You would think in a country were talking aloud in the subway is barely tolerated and speaking on your cellphone strictly forbidden, there would be some sort of strict control on what you can do with a speaker-equipped van.


Oddly enough, it is considered rather rude to hold a conversation at a regular voice level in a public space, but absolutely ok to blast your loudspeakers in the early morning and drive round the block. And I literally mean round the block as said car-driving loudspeakers users ensure you don’t miss whatever essential stuff they got to say by usually driving a dozen times around your block… Just in case you’d have managed to accidentally sleep through the first eleven times.


I guess it would be somewhat comforting to know that the asshole who wakes you up at dawn with his trite message repeated over and over is out of voice by noon. But there’s no such hope as, of course, the whole thing is merely a stupid recorded message looping on and on, while they drive around or, worse yet, as they park and start reading their manga or go get some food.


Overall, there are three main categories of such vans in Japan, each of them differently annoying, each of them with a different agenda:


The most tolerable ones are the street vendors, who basically do the same as in most other countries: trying to grab the customer’s attention by any means necessary. These usually don’t move too much, they just park somewhere and open their portable food stands while the speaker blasts some inane song about their delightful fried sweet potatoes (these songs are so strange, I used to think they were some kind of religious chants until I got to understand their food-related lyrics).


There are also politicians… Who do not seem afraid to wake up their constituents to remind them they exist. The ridiculous practices of local political campaigns in Japan would deserve an entry of its own. Altogether, it has very little to do with passing on the slightest political message (even by already ludicrously low US standards), much more to do with standing, along with two or three assistants, at the exit of the local subway station and bow to every passerby while just telling them who you are. Of course, in order to complement their branding for bigger elections, they’ll have vans touring the street and broadcasting the exact same one-liner all day long over their loudspeakers. These vans are usually staffed by a handful of young chirpy japanese girls who will wave and blow kisses to every moving object in a 2 miles radius. Last time I crossed one of these, the fact I was alone in the street and quite obviously not in any power to cast a vote in the local elections did not deter them from sending me such a demonstration of electoral love…


Then, there are the ubiquitous right-wing nationalist sinister black vans… These are a bit more complicated and much less harmless.

Basically nostalgic of the days of yore, when the sun was rising all over Asia and the emperor still a living God, this bunch of powerful wackos spend most of their time chanting old military songs, demanding a return of the imperial regime, calling for immediate war against Korea or claiming their hatred of such or such thing. One of their typical strategy is to go park in front of a specific premise (house of a liberal politician, office of a reporter who dared mention some of the exactions committed by Japanese military during WWII, any company they have a reason to dislike…) and blare fanatical aggressive comments meant to “bring shame” on their target. These tactics usually succeeds in that targeted businesses will usually see their frequentation dwindle, since, despite their disdain for these fanatics, most Japanese will still prefer to pass their way and go somewhere else.
It is said that the reason these people and their unusually aggressive ways are tolerated in otherwise politically quiet Japan is that they have very strong ties with high-ranking officials, but also more importantly with yakuzas: on one hand, yakuzas never made a secret of their historical fondness for nationalism, while on the other hand, the black vans strategies are a good way to put pressure on any business unwilling to cooperate, without resorting to fully illegal means (just by “shaming” them). Although it seems like both groups would tend to disassociate from each other these days.


I am pretty lucky: the street just down my window in my new flat only admits limited traffic, but the vicinity of bigger avenues is enough to provide me with delightful wake-up to the sound of Mishima-wannabes brailing their twisted anachronical dreams at least once a week.

Filed under: Only in Japan