I’m sitting in my kitchen right now, as I often do, after a delightful day off work. I woke up at 8:30, milled around for a while, had a cup of coffee in the sun on my balcony and listened to some new music while the birds sang in the background. Actually, perhaps “sang” is a little far-fetched. Back in England birds sing; they chirp and whistle and tweet and natter to one another in a delightful chorus that is actually rather pleasant. No, here birds don’t so much sing as screech, like the Devil’s nails on a blackboard made of hate and despair. I didn’t notice them in the summer this year; not because they weren’t there necessarily, but because their screams were undoubtedly drowned out by the sound of Cicadas, which in turn sound like a 10ft grasshopper about 2mm from your ear, all day, every day. More joy cannot be had in a non-air-conditioned flat where it is necessary to leave all the windows open day and night for fear of internal combustion.
Apart from the deathly screams of birds, I also sit here listening to the sound of workmen outside. I’ve been meaning to write about Japanese workmen for quite some time now as they seem to provide me with a never-ending source of amusement. Right when you think you’ve got them all figured out; right when everything bizarre that they do begins to seem normal, they go and do something else equally weird and equally funny.
The first people you will notice when you come across a set of workmen in Japan are what I like to call The Light Men. They are men whose job is solely to hold a little flashing light-sabre and wave it around for no discernible purpose whatsoever. You might be walking along a pavement, and alongside there might be some roadworks. There will be a little fence with flashing lights on it, all the way along the side of the pavement to stop people from falling into a hole in the road. Sensible enough. There is nowhere to go but along the pavement, but, just to make sure, there will be a Light Man there to safely guide the way and as he sees you coming he will begin emphatically waving his light parallel to the pavement, just to make sure that you don’t walk right through the flashing fence and kill yourself. It is their duty to be the friendly face of the workforce; they will say good morning, good day and good evening to you without missing a beat, and always with a smile, no matter the weather. The Light Men give me cheer in the morning.
Before I discovered a slightly quicker route to work, I would ride past a building site every morning. There would always be a Light Man there to make sure none of the cars/bikes/motorcycles lost sight of the road thank goodness, except for one morning; this particular morning I was a little earlier than usual. I turned the corner to find no Light Man and, just before I lost the road and ploughed into a nearby lamp-post, I spotted the next thing that would prove to be another source of workmen-based amusement. As I peered over the fence I saw the entire workforce, lined up in rows in front of what I can only presume to be the site manager, doing star jumps, twirling around and waving their arms in circles along to a man on a tape going “hup! hup! nen! hup! nen!” We’d been told at one of the orientations that they did this in junior high schools to begin the day, but to find a bunch of grown men on a building site doing it was too much. A smirk arose on my face at once and, just at that same moment, one of them stared at me with a look that said I had both interrupted and soiled a holy practice with one blow. Guilt flushed through my body and I rode on quickly before they could come and ask me what the hell I thought was so funny. This is a daily morning ritual for them, and is undoubtedly what makes the difference between being a good Light Man, and being the best Light Man. Who was I to mock them?
Finally, and this one I only noticed very recently, is the Reversing Lorry Man. Now I must confess that I have only heard, not seen this important addition to the roadside workforce, but his is an equally important role; maybe even more important that that of the Light Men. You see in Japan, like in many countries these days, lorries are fitted with little devices that go “beep! beep! beep!” when they reverse. Nothing remarkable about that, but Reversing Lorry Man knows that this is simply not enough for the general population. For all they know that beep could be the mating call of a Tamagotchi, or a teenager playing Final Fantasy VII at high volume nearby, or one of those Devil Birds with a sore throat. When Reversing Lorry Man hears that beep, he knows what it is. There is no question. Either by instinct or through intensive training, he pre-empts the beep and begins to yell at the top of his voice: “AHHHHHHHH! AHHHHHHHH! AHHHHHHHH! AHHHHHHHH!” One can only imagine the number of deaths that may have arisen if this man was not a part of the workforce and so it is, with my final bloggy breath, that I salute the Light Men and the Reversing Lorry Men in every workforce around the country for keeping us safe from our stupid selves. Bravo!