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Lost, In Translation

Thanks to my gracious hosts at Panasonic, my first trip to Japan was seamless and enjoyable. The company is to be commended for its efforts to deal intelligently with energy efficiency and the environmental impact of consumer electronics and appliances. Seeing such technologies up close and in action was educational and thought provoking.

That being said, as the days passed I found myself feeling oddly disappointed. I had anticipated an entirely different reaction to Japan — one of mystery and isolation, of feeling out of place in a land with a strange language and unknown customs. My prior impressions of Japanese culture came solely from TV, books and film (think Bill Murray’s character in “Lost In Translation” appearing on the Japanese talk show.) I looked around at the technology centers and manufacturing facilities that our group of visiting journalists was touring and I thought to myself: “This all feels very normal. Where’s the weirdness?”

And then we visited Yodobashi Camera.

The 20-location chain of megastores is the best-known CE and appliance chain in Japan, and as we pulled up to the eight-story location in the Umeda shopping district of Osaka, I had prepared myself for a boring walk-through of yet another big-box retailer. Instead, I found myself immersed in a senses-assaulting whirlpool of retail culture shock.

The first thing I was able to pick out of the sudden din was the company jingle being played on an endless loop over the sound system. A female voice sang in sing-songy Japanese to a tinny techno version of the tune of “The Battle Hymn Of The Republic.” (You can hear a sample here; click on song #9, choosing either Real or Windows Media format.) Layered over that were announcements of store specials, also in an endless loop and offered up in, at my count, six languages, including Japanese, Chinese, Korean, English, Spanish and what sounded like German — though it was hard to tell since the announcer had a thick Japanese accent.

Looking around at what seemed like hundreds of uniformed store employees, I began to wonder how many of these poor souls go insane from the sound.

I navigated my way down an impossibly long aisle lined with display tables of cellphones, hundreds and hundreds of cellphones in every shape, color and brand I could think of, all displayed powered up so shoppers could pick them up and try out their features. I thought about my trip to the Verizon store in New York a few weeks back when I was given the choice of three phones in three different colors by the helpful counterman. Immediately past the phones I spied racks and racks of small packaged blister packs. On closer inspection I realized these were cellphone accessories — beads, stickers, tattoos, glitter paint kits and etching tools to personalize your phone. The racks were double sided and took up at least 60 feet. On the other side: straps, thousands of them in every variety imaginable. I quickly got the point of Yodobashi. If they don’t have it, it probably doesn’t exist.


I made my way to the escalator bank in the back of the store and happened past what I thought was a scuffle or argument between some shoppers. Four men were yelling loudly to be heard over the rapid-fire volley of announcements over the now-grating jingle loop. Turns out they were hawkers, store employees charged with pushing certain specials by literally screaming about them at shoppers passing by.

I escaped to the next floor. The assault continued. The video floor had more than 200 flat-panel TVs, divided by brand name, all turned on and displaying videos of Japanese pop bands (all of which seemed to feature an attractive young woman with a big guitar as the lead vocalist.) Of course, each brand’s grouping was displaying a different band, playing a different song, which produced a racket that would have normally driven me away immediately, if I hadn’t realized that for a few blissful moments, this J-pop stew was temporarily obscuring the Yodobashi jingle, which had now permanently lodged in that part of my brain that plays a song over and over until I can successfully replace it with another.

I proceeded upward. On the camera floor, there were seizure-inducing flash displays. On the PC floor, banks of laptops running DVDs of Hollywood films, some dubbed in Japanese and all turned to maximum volume. When I reached the home theater floor, I immediately thought better of it and continued on.

Meantime, I was absolutely amazed by the stunning breadth of inventory available everywhere I looked. There were wall-sized displays of every imaginable battery, flash card, blank-media format, portable drive, cable, etc. There was huge watch section and an even larger aisle devoted entirely to watchbands. And I have never seen a larger display of camera lenses, filters and flash units in one place. The executives who run Yodobashi obviously subscribe to the theory that the average shopper will come in for a necessity, like a battery, and stay to browse and hopefully make an impulse purchase.

I eventually ended up on the relatively quiet toy floor, with only the ubiquitous jingle playing in stereo, one channel over the sound system and one channel chiming from deep within my brain. I allowed myself a few moments to rest my eardrums and buy my two young sons some gifts.

 A glance at the clock section’s wall of at least a thousand clocks informed me that I had only been shopping for about 45 minutes. It seemed like days. I decided for the sake of sanity that I would use the other 15 minutes of my allotted time to make my escape and walk around outside, taking in the sights of the Osaka neighborhood. I plunged into the 98-degree summer heat and actually breathed a sigh of relief, and then the jingle started anew in my head.