Japanese bureaucracy is one of the most efficient (and at times efficiently frustrating) in the world. If you know the rules of the game – registering as a foreigner, paying for national health insurance and pension, registering a personal signature stamp, etc. – then you should have no trouble with life in Japan. However, if you don’t know or don’t like the written (and unwritten) rules, then you may chafe under the societal differences, and when you call the local office to ask why you’ve received yet another bill to pay, your frustration may only increase when they put you on hold and you are forced to listen to a MIDI version of the famous English folk song “Greensleeves.” Video gamers will recognize the tune from the “King’s Quest” series of games, and history buffs will be well familiar with the 16th-century ballad that is referred to in Shakespeare and Chaucer.
For whatever reason, the tune is one of the default melodies on telephone systems in Japan. Not that the tune is the only one available; this Brother fax machine, for example, offers over 30 different selections, including “fun” songs like “It’s a Small World” and “seasonal” songs such as “Hotaru no hikari” (also known as “Auld Lang Syne”). But Greensleeves is listed in the “soothing” category along with classics like “Eine kleine Nachtmusik” and “My Old Kentucky Home.” A closer look reveals that this particular model is advertising melodies for the arrival of faxes – not necessarily hold music. Whether or not Greensleeves deserves to be put in the “soothing” category is a debatable issue, but another model from the same company, however, makes it very clear that in Japan, Greensleeves = hold music.
Perhaps there is some unknown connection with “King’s Quest.” Perhaps a freelance MIDI artist was just producing a ton of different music and Greensleeves tested very “soothing” in the market studies. Even Japanese are baffled by this. On Yahoo Japan, a questioner asked “Why is ‘Greensleeves’ so frequently used as hold music?” The single response says, simply, “Maybe because average people like it.”
Whatever the reason, “Greensleeves” approaches a sort of symbolic value much like “Auld Lang Syne,” which is bigger in Japan than “Greensleeves” and used across the country at stores just before closing time (to signal that they are closing) and at graduation ceremonies (to signal that the kids are finished). “Greensleeves” signals, soothingly to some and annoyingly to others, that the caller is being made to wait. Just a few more seconds and they’ll be back. Almost there. Wait for it. Wait for iiit – omatase-shimashita.