Photo/IllutrationA music siren on the rooftop of the Tokiwa department store in Oita on Jan. 15 (Manabu Hiratsuka)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

OITA--A movement has started to preserve the dwindling number of musical instruments whose creation was inspired by a sound that had terrified the nation’s population for years.

The “music siren” was developed by Hamamatsu-based instrument maker Yamaha Corp. just after the end of World War II to serve as a “symbol of peace.”

Around that time, sirens blared piercing noise to announce the hours across the war-stricken nation, but the sound reminded Japanese of air-raid alarms and the horrifying experiences of destruction.

With their relaxing tunes, music sirens have been loved by generations as part of the “soundscape.”

But most of them, including one removed from a Yamaha building late last year, have been retired from service.

Only five music sirens at four locations remain in Japan. One of them is at the Tokiwa department store here.

When Tokiwa’s main store in central Oita opens at 10 a.m., gentle music spreads from its rooftop to urban areas nearby. Those within 5 kilometers from the store can hear the tune, but the music sometimes reaches 10 km or more away, depending on the wind direction.

The first music siren was installed at the department store in 1954.

Measuring 5 meters long, the rooftop equipment has 10 metal blades that rotate at high speed. The motor generates compressed air that is sent out through openable windows and produces 10 scales of sounds to play registered tunes.

On business days, Tokiwa staff play music at the push of a button three times a day.

While ordinary sirens across the nation can only repeat recorded music, the music siren can play tunes by blowing air.

According to Yamaha, the first-generation music siren is used at Tokiwa and the Iga city office in Mie Prefecture, while two units of its successor operate in Tenri, Nara Prefecture.

The improved model is also on Mount Atagoyama in Yawatahama, Ehime Prefecture.


Yamaha officials said the chairman of the company’s predecessor ordered the development of the device, and the completed instrument was set up on the rooftop of the corporation’s headquarters in 1950.

The following year, the first commercial music siren was delivered to the University of Miyazaki. About 200 units have since been sold to local government offices and department stores.

Tokiwa’s music siren--the only one in the Kyushu region--is the second for the department store. The current one was introduced in 1975 to coincide with extension work of the shop.

“Asa” (Morning), a song whose lyrics were written by poet Toson Shimazaki (1872-1943) and gained nationwide popularity from before World War II, is played at Tokiwa’s opening time. “Hanayome Ningyo” (Bride doll) is set as the noon music. The Scottish folk song “Annie Laurie” announces the department store’s closure at 7 p.m.

Tetsuko Hatano, 86, who chose the songs as a Tokiwa employee, said Toru Kozuma, the late honorary chairman of Tokiwa, decided to introduce a music siren when he was a director.

Kozuma realized the time signals from the city office sounded like air-raid alarms in the wartime period.

“Announcing the hours though music will bring the dream of an affluent life to people,” Kozuma was quoted as saying.


Noriaki Kodama, 57, who runs a bicycle shop several hundred meters from Tokiwa, said he has good memories of the music siren.

“I would play at a park next to Tokiwa during my childhood, and music (from the department store) told me that it was time to return home,” Kodama said. “It (the music siren) worked as a clock in my daily life, and its sounds are always with me through my life.”

As Japanese started leading richer lives, sounds of 100 decibels came to be regarded as “noise,” and production of music sirens stopped in 1998 as demand decreased.

The manufacturing of new parts ended in 2011, and maintenance services were terminated in 2016.

After playing “Hotaru no Hikari” (the Japanese version of the Scottish folk song “Auld Lang Syne”) at 5 p.m. on Dec. 28, the siren at Yamaha’s headquarters was removed following 68 years of operation.

Although Tokiwa intends to continue using its music siren, it is unclear whether it can be fixed if it breaks down.

Tatsuaki Nojiri, 55, who has maintained the music siren as a worker of a Yamaha group company, said he hopes the instrument can play tunes for as long as possible.

“It is not an ordinary siren but a unique music instrument that can be created only by Yamaha,” Nojiri said.

Hatano agreed.

“The soft and comfortable sounds represent the peaceful period following the war,” she said. “It (the music siren) has been loved by citizens because it is the symbol of peace. I want it to be used forever with affection.”


The Soundscape Association of Japan, comprising researchers studying sounds and environment, called for the preservation and use of music sirens as “an audio cultural property” on Dec. 25.

“They (music sirens) played a historic role in erasing bad memories in warfare and heralding the arrival of peace,” the association said in a statement. “As memories of the war have been fading, they have an important public value in terms of the history of Japan’s landscape.”

Kazuya Minoura, an environmental sociology professor at Yamanashi Prefectural University, who is a managing director of the association, said music sirens “have as high a value as townscapes as a treasure of local areas.”

“Music sirens have long been heard by people with affection,” Minoura noted.