Let me pass. Let me pass.
How a sinister-sounding children’s tune can help you cross the road in Japan.
Living in Japan, you tend to pick up all sorts of stuff subconsciously – whether it’s unwittingly humming AKB48 in the shower or automatically saying sumimasen for every single bloody thing. The other day I was listening to some traditional Japanese folk music for an article I’m writing and I came across “Tōryanse” – a children’s tune (warabe uta) that I knew I had somehow heard before. And then it clicked: it’s a common choice for music played by traffic lights in Japan when it’s safe to cross the road.
This particular warabe-uta is sung as part of a traditional game identical to “London Bridge Is Falling Down”. Two children facing each other link their hands to form an arch ‘checkpoint’, and the remaining children walk through underneath in a line (and back round again in circles). The child who happens to be under the arch when the song finishes is then ‘caught’. The tune being played at Japanese pedestrian crossings is an analogy to this game, ie. it is safe to cross until the music stops.
I always thought the tune played by the traffic lights was pretty chirpy and upbeat, but when you listen to the original folk version it sounds much more sinister.
There are many theories to the origin of the song, but all agree that it is a portrayal of an exchange between a civilian and a guard manning some sort of a checkpoint. (Kawagoe Castle according to one theory.) In the old days when infant mortality was high, people celebrated when a child survived to reach the age of 7, and ordinary people were only allowed to visit the shrine within the castle compound for special occasions.