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Japan: land of talking refrigerators, traffic lights

Whether unfailingly polite or brusquely domineering, Japan's talking machines are becoming impossible to escape.

Some car drivers already face a shrill voice telling them to ''buckle up'' every time they slip behind the wheel and turn on the ignition. There is talk of adding another gadget to lecture drivers who exceed the speed limit.

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At home, there are microwave ovens that tell the housewife how long to cook the family roast and bellow at her when it is ready for the table. There is also a refrigerator that snaps out a sharp reminder if the door is not closed properly.

On the streets, there are soft-drink vending machines that politely ask the customer's preference - ''Would you like ice in your Coke?'' - and send him on his way with a cordial ''thank you for your patronage.''

But the machines can't resist lecturing: ''Please don't forget to dispose of your empty cup (or can) in the proper receptacle. . . . Don't be a litterbug.''

At railway stations, disembodied voices provide endless exhortations on the need to stand back while the train draws to a halt and to let disembarking passengers off first before charging the doors. . . . Oh, and don't forget your umbrella or other possessions.

The latest entry into the world of verbal technology is talking traffic lights. The Tokyo satellite city of Urawa has adapted its signals to broadcast polite instructions to pedestrians on when and when not to cross the road. A taped female voice admonishes gently: ''Please wait a moment,'' or ''Please cross carefully now.''

A police spokesman says the system was developed because pedestrian signals are often difficult to distinguish and even ignored. If the experiment works, talking lights will be installed throughout Japan, he says.

''Talking machines are seen as a genuine attempt to be helpful and not as a first manifestation of an approaching 'Big Brother' society,'' explains a leading sociologist.

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But after performing marvels in conquering air and water pollution, the Japanese now seem in danger of succumbing to noise pollution from chatterbox machines.

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