Empire of Sounds

Japan, which Roland Barthes called the Empire of Signs, might just as aptly, although less semiologically, be called the Empire of Sounds. For me, the urban soundscape of Tokyo is the largest payoff I get by living in an already great city. I travel everywhere around town with my trusty pocket recorder tucked away, well, in my pocket, ready to grab whatever interesting sonic environments I happen to stumble in to. And stumble I did, as I returned to Japan over the weekend after my summer hiatus in the States, and found myself smack in the middle of a neighborhood festival practically the moment I arrived.

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All photos by Carl Stone

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Listen to The Asagaya Matsuri


The Asagaya Matsuri (Festival) in September celebrates the coming of autumn and is a signifier of Japan’s rural and agrarian history, where farming was a family enterprise, holdings tiny and fragmented, and cultivation methods simple. Now Asagaya is as urban as any neighborhood in Tokyo but many of the rituals remain, as they do in most neighborhoods in the city and its outskirts. In this case, people gather in groups under the sponsorship of local businesses and parade through the streets carrying ornate and weighty floats called mikoshi . They chant repetitively for self-encouragement as they bear the load, but if their spirits somehow flag, a chap with a bullhorn is always at hand to buck them up, sometimes berating and insulting them like a marine drill sergeant or a high school football coach at half-time. Others join the din with whistles and wooden clappers. An ensemble of drums and flute play while perched atop an elevated scaffold in front of the train station. Add the occasional sound of an ambulance along with the normal sounds of traffic—incredibly they don’t close the roads but let the paraders mix in with the cars—and you get a wonderful sound stew which I offer up herewith for your enjoyment.

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