9 Japanese Sounds You Won’t Hear in the United States (But I wish #7 was okay in the U.S. too!)

I’m always struck by the sounds of Japan.

Of course there is lots to see and smell and taste (!) in Japan but I especially enjoy listening to the sounds around me. When I hear the cheerful melody announcing the train’s arrival to the platform, then I know I have truly arrived in Japan.

I know that sounds might not be everyone’s strongest impression of a place.

People tend to take pictures when they want to record an experience. I have never seen anyone whip out a sound recorder and say, “Hold on! I just want to capture the sounds of this moment for my scrapbook.”

Consider the following question…

Would you rather be blind or deaf?

Screen shot 2016-04-11 at 1.31.41 PM.png

Having to choose between being deaf or blind, I imagine most people would answer that they would rather be deaf. Vision is too dear to most people.

Indeed humans are highly visual creatures. But let’s not forget our ears!

Given that my spirit animal is the rabbit, I suppose it is no surprise that I love sounds. Sounds keep us safe by warning us of approaching danger. Sounds let us communicate using spoken language. Sounds entertain and delight. I love hearing the laughter coaxed from my grandmother by a funny story.

Bunny at the Ueno Zoo in Tokyo.


Sounds can also help us understand life in another culture.

When I visited Kenya, a noisy caravan of cars came down the road. There was shouting and whistling and banging on drums. My friend explained that it was a funeral procession. In that part of Kenya, bigger and louder funerals give more honor to the deceased.

The market in the nearby town from where my friend was living…


The noisy funeral was strikingly different from the funerals I have attended in the U.S., where we spoke in respectfully hushed voices. Listening to the music, language, and ambient sounds of a new place has taught me a lot about different cultures.

My friend’s kitchen in Kenya. No sounds of running water here…


In Japan, I have encountered many unfamiliar sounds. Like a rabbit, I  keep my ears up and listening. Here are 10 Japanese sounds that you will not hear in the United States.

  1. Super polite trucks

Did you know? Trucks in Japan talk.

In the United States, trucks beep when they are backing up. But trucks in Japan are even more polite and considerate. Japanese trucks will notify you, “Careful! I am turning right.” or “Careful! I am turning left.” As they back up, an automated message plays, “I am backing up.”

These motorized vehicles in the Tsukiji Fish Market zoom around with no warnings!


Sure, at times it feels excessive. When the truck is slowly backing down the street announcing, “I am backing up. I am backing up. I am backing up. I am backing up” over and over, I do wonder if once or twice would be enough.

When riding my bike in the narrow streets of Japan though, I certainly appreciate the verbal warnings from the trucks.

  1. Shouts of “WELCOME!” when you enter a store

A common sound you will definitely hear in Japan is the word “irrashaimase.” It is usually shouted loudly and often in unison by employees when you enter a store or restaurant. The word means, “welcome.”

The first time I visited Japan, I did not know how to respond to this greeting. Often the loud shouts startled me. I did not know if I should say something in return, or if I should acknowledge their greeting with a head nod. Sometimes it was shouted not just once, but several times as I walked around the store and encountered other employees.

Walk through the curtain and you are guaranteed a shout of “Welcome!”


At the time, I looked around and no one seemed to be acknowledging the shouts, so I kept quiet. Now I know that there is no need to respond. You can simply appreciate the warm welcome and go about your business.

  1. The go home bell

At 5pm in Japan, music plays over loud speakers. It plays loudly for 20-30 seconds.

Here is a recording of the bells in Tokyo.

The bells sound slightly different, depending on the neighborhood. Also, depending on the season, the time varies with 5pm bells in the winter and 6pm bells in the summer as the days get longer. In addition, some towns have a second broadcast at noon.

Not this kind of bell… a HUGE bronze bell at a temple near Kyoto.


Unofficially, my friends explained to me that the bell serves as a reminder for children to head home. Officially, it is a test of a nationwide system that can transmit warnings throughout Japan in as little as seven seconds.

(Ooops! #4 seems to have gone missing… “4” is actually bad luck in Japan. The word for 4 sounds like the verb for die. If you are a guest to a wedding, it is better not to bring a gift of $400 for the couple. Better to bring $300 or $500. So just like some American buildings have no 13th floor, this blog post has no #4!)

  1. Clacking shoes

If you visit a traditional inn (or ryokan) in Japan, you might have a chance to wear wooden shoes called “geta.” Just listen to the interesting sounds these shoes make!

The shoes are basically a wooden flip-flop, with a hard wooden platform and woven straps balanced on two wooden platforms. I am still getting the hang of these shoes. Walking gracefully without tripping is hard…

  1. Super silent train car

The super silent train car isn’t about a sound you hear in Japan but instead the incredible lack of sound you will encounter in the train.

Imagine an empty train car. Now imagine a train car packed with hundreds of people. In Japan, these train cars would sound exactly the same. Seriously.

So quiet… Whether there are 2 people or 200.


Train cars in Japan are so quiet – no chatting, no talking on the phone, no loud music leaking from headphones – even the train itself makes hardly any noise. When I merely whisper on trains in Japan, I feel conspicuous.

The contrast between hyper-silent train cars in Japan versus the United States became clear to me when I visited New York City. The New York city train system is bursting with life and sound. The train cars rumble and groan. Passengers actually talk to each other! Musicians on the platforms perform music. One time riding the subway with my brother, two men boarded the train. One guy started playing music on the boom box he was carrying, while the other started this trick routine, hanging like a monkey from the metal handrails on the ceiling.


You certainly will find extremely noisy places in Japan (try walking into a pachinko parlor) but the train is not one of those places.

  1. Shouting “EXCUSE ME!” in restaurants

Want to order more food? Or request your check?

If you are in Japan, you can loudly shout “EXCUSE ME!” (“sumimasen” in Japanese) to call the staff to your table.

When I first arrived to Japan, I felt too shy to shout. It seemed rude. Instead I would wait hoping that a server would eventually visit my table. Sometimes they did. And sometimes they didn’t.

Want to order some clam soup? Then it is okay to shout so.

P1030683.JPG Now I am used to it, and actually I appreciate the efficiency of being able to shout anytime I like. In some restaurants, there is even an electronic call button to summon staff to your table. K also finds the American practice of trying to “catch the server’s eye” to be much harder and more inconvenient than shouting.

So if you are headed to Japan, get ready to shout! (But not in the trains. See #6.)

  1. Bicycle bell

*Bring bring*

In some ways, Japan is quite bike friendly – there are bike racks in front of stores. There are large bike parking areas outside train stations. Lots of people use bikes to commute to work and school, and to run errands around town.

Bicycle parking by the train station.


But one way that Japan is not very bike friendly is the structure of the streets. The sidewalks are often narrow and the streets can be even more narrow. So it is important to warn people that you are coming on your bicycle.

One trip to Japan, I rented a bicycle and rode to a wasabi farm. Notice the hand drawn map and the bell!

IMG_15.jpg When riding my bike in the U.S., I am more likely to announce, “On your right!” as I pass a pedestrian. In Japan though, a gentle ring of your bicycle bell will clear the sidewalk in front of you.

I have also experienced people in Japan use the clicking back-pedaling sound to warn me that they are behind me. This sound is even quieter than a polite bell ring, and requires a great deal of vigilance.

A spider took up residence in my bike basket!


Living in Japan, I was mostly oblivious to these signs, realizing much too late that bicyclists were backing up on the sidewalk behind me. I developed the habit of walking very close to the edge of the sidewalk, leaving as much space as possible for bicyclists to pass.

  1. Politician trucks

Another case of noisy truck syndrome!

In Japan, political candidates often campaign in densely populated city areas by riding around on trucks equipped with speakers announcing their political message.  The trucks are sometimes stationed near a busy street intersection and the politicians stand on top of the trucks.


(Image Credit: Wikipedia.)

Looking at the trucks, I have always wondered why candidates choose trucks over television. Maybe being physically present to broadcast your message is more effective than broadcasting virtually.

Either way, I cannot vote in Japan, so I mostly ignore these trucks.

  1. Singing appliances

When the rice cooker finishes its job, it sings a little song to let you know that your rice is ready to eat. My bathtub also played a tune to inform me that the water had finished filling and was waiting for me.


BONUS – More sounds!

Here is a spliced audio recording that I made of a bunch of sounds in Japan from a trip there several summers ago. Enjoy!

Thanks for reading! Have you heard any interesting sounds in your travels? Let me know!


Come back on Monday! New recipes and musings on Japan posted here every week.


16 thoughts on “9 Japanese Sounds You Won’t Hear in the United States (But I wish #7 was okay in the U.S. too!)

  1. Anonymous says:

    Hey Jessy,
    Is that your yoga pose?
    One other sound I’d like to see you add is street vendors of “yakiimo”. The prolonged high pitched shout (or could be categorized as “singing”) is so endearing and inviting on a cold winter night.
    Do you see my comments? I was wondering how come that I can’t see them (the ones that I posted)?
    Thanks for the beautiful blog!

    Date: Tue, 19 Apr 2016 17:12:33 +0000
    To: xianyan99@hotmail.com

    Liked by 1 person

    1. J LeClair says:

      Sorry about that! The comments take a moment for me to approve before popping up on the blog. 🙂 Thanks for waiting and thanks for the comment!! Oooh – another good addition. That call is so dangerous for me. I always ended up drawn to the booth and find myself soon eating something delicious. Ha ha! Jessy


  2. Wordsummit says:

    “Hold on! I just want to capture the sounds of this moment for my scrapbook.”—-ha! I’m that guy…

    I also find smells to be powerful memory cues— if I could wake up to a recording of my Japanese room heater firing up on a cold winter morning in Akita, and somehow have the smell of 灯油 pumped into the room, I would probably be completely transported into a lucid dream.

    For your list, I would definitely add the sound of bugs— I know Cicada aren’t unique to Japan, but they’re definitely a vivid ‘sound memory’ in Japan for me. There are a couple of nice ones on this page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/100_Soundscapes_of_Japan

    Liked by 1 person

    1. J LeClair says:

      Thanks for the wonderful comment!! It is great to meet a fellow audio lover. I also carry my recorder with me. Do you post your sound scrapbook anywhere? I would love to hear it. And I completely agree about smells and the addition to cicadas. Wouldn’t it be great to have a kerosene “air freshener” to spray around the room? 😛 Jessy


      1. Wordsummit says:

        hahaha—-a kerosene air freshener is a brilliant idea… I wonder, is there such a thing as a tatami air freshener? It doesn’t seem like an impossible request…

        Alas, outside of commentary from people (that I recorded on the condition that I wouldn’t post it publicly), I haven’t really curated many of my audio files— part of the challenge is that when I was in Japan and China, my audio recorder wasn’t a very high quality device… (now I’ve got an amazing 4-channel Zoom recorder)

        Liked by 1 person

      2. J LeClair says:

        Oh wow! I would totally buy the tatami one. When I tried to search for such a product just now, I found lots of forums with people complaining about how to *get rid* of the tatami smell. Haha. Tatami smells kind of like hay. Maybe just wave some hay around the house? If you ever post some audio, I’d love to hear it!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Josh says:

    After living in Tokyo short-term and the many repeated stays there I concur with all these except I don’t recall #3. Maybe I was just in the wrong part of town to hear it.

    Other sounds I remember vividly in Japan were:
    #1 Suburban recycling trucks – Rather small trucks that would wander around the small streets announcing they’ll pick up your unwanted items like bicycles, washing machines, computers etc.
    #2 Train stations – Each station has its own melody warning passengers that the train was about to leave. For example, Takadanobaba station has the Astro Boy theme music.
    #3 Traffic signals – There were a couple of different sounds, but some signals would sound like a bird was chirping while crossing the road.
    #4 Inside stores – Didn’t matter if a store was selling electronics or cosmetics, there was always plenty of portable DVD players and the like loudly advertising about the products it was placed near.
    #5 People shouting “kaidama” – Particularly in tonkotsu ramen restaurants, people could would shout “kaidama” to get additional ramen noodles for their bowl. Sometimes the first “kaidama” lot of noodles would be free, then any additional were 100 yen each.
    #6 Check out women in the supermarket – For some reason, the women working at the supermarket check out would literally count out aloud the cost of the items while placing the items very neatly into your shopping basket before you paid.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. J LeClair says:

      Hi Josh, Wow. This is such a great list of additions! Thank you. I have never heard anyone shout “kadaima” (but that’s probably because I rarely eat at ramen restaurants). Is it only used for ramen noodles? Can I shout “kadaima” and get another round of soba noodles? Also I’m curious what took you to Japan. Were you working there? Jessy


  4. Josh says:

    “Kaidama” just at tonkotsu ramen restaurants apparently – I think I tried somewhere that did miso ramen and it was a no go. I used to do it mostly at a small tonkotsu ramen place over in Ochanomizu as it wasn’t far from Akihabara to go on the hunt for computer parts.

    Initially I went on a 5 week holiday back in 2007 when my work said I needed to use up my annual leave. I went later again in 2009 for a working holiday visa, though it was bad timing in hindsight due to horribly bad currency exchange rates. I stayed with a couple around Kokubunji, and did some part time work at a small child care facility in Ogikubo before working at a so-called Italian restaurant down a small street in Roppongi at night. I also attempted modelling to see what would happen but apart from a rehearsal at Izzy Miyake’s and UniQlo’s head offices, not much came of it. Usually there was some American that was chosen for the spot, and it also got a bit tiresome spending money on trains going all over Tokyo on short notice and not see any income.

    The worst part of that trip was probably when my drink was spiked in a Roppongi night club by some Nigerians. That’s a story I could type on it’s own blog post, but let’s just say that I may not have seen another day. Also at the time I remember receiving the stimulus package from the Japanese government which was at least 20,000 yen from memory. I needed to arrange a customised hanko just to stamp the document to receive it at the town hall.

    Since then I’ve been on several trips over there after getting married to a Japanese woman. We had our evening wedding at Grand Nikko Hotel in Odaiba inside a chapel with a glass wall overlooking the Rainbow Bridge. The Rainbow Bridge was suppose to be lit up with various colours as the backdrop, but instead was completely dark. This was due to saving power after that devastating period in 2011.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. J LeClair says:

      Hi Josh, Wow it sounds like you have had many experiences in Japan. This past summer, I was staying near Akihabara to volunteer at Second Harvest Japan (Japan’s only nationwide food bank). It is a fun area, especially at night. I tend to stay away from Roppongi. I did visit the area once and stumbled upon a very cool book store. I have never been able to find it again. I will have to go back and explore sometime. You were there in 2011? I was living in Japan at the time, in Kyoto though, not Tokyo. I was working as a researcher at Kyoto University. After the earthquake, we had to cut our energy consumption by like 30%. We turned off everything we could. We even unplugged the toaster in the common area kitchen. It was a difficult time and I know that the area is still recovering. Do you speak Japanese? Jessy


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