Making noise about keeping the decibels down

by

Special To The Japan Times

Yoshimichi Nakajima was waiting for the train one day at his local station in Tokyo when he politely asked the station attendant to lower the volume on his microphone. He was told that would be “difficult,” so Nakajima lent a hand by grabbing the mic and throwing it onto the track. He then recounted all of this to the station master, who was speechless. Nakajima, a rare breed of Japanese anti-noise crusader, has also taken a speaker from a liquor store and tossed it outside as well as seized a megaphone from a police officer.

“I’ve done such things on numerous occasions,” he said recently in an email. “And I never once regretted doing them.”

For a culture that places a high value on quiet, Japan can get pretty noisy sometimes, whether it’s the loud and long-winded announcements on trains and buses, the big cacophonous TV screens around shopping centers, the right-wing nationalists’ trucks that drive around blaring marching music and imperialist slogans out of loudspeakers or the infamous election campaigners who likewise promote themselves at ear-splitting volumes.

Though there are laws that limit most amplified sounds in public spaces, they typically aren’t enforced. Campaign trucks are even exempt from the laws, so in 2007 Yu Ito, then a member of the Metropolitan Assembly, set up the No! Senkyo Car network, whose anti-noise logo conveys that message.

When it comes to making noise in public, free speech trumps the right to privacy, a state of affairs that has driven Nakajima to distraction ever since he returned to Japan from Europe several decades ago and realized how noisy his native country is.

Nakajima, 68, is a philosopher and author of a series of books about noise in Japan, including his “Japanese are Half Fallen” (2005), where he provides an account of Japan’s irksome “culture of noise” that includes unnecessary announcements in train stations, the endless loops played in stores, talking escalators and ATMs, and the use of cranked-up loudspeakers just about everywhere. In addition to being a profound annoyance, he argued that such relentless noise desensitizes and even infantilizes people, rendering them docile. But despite his bold acts of protest, he acknowledged that ultimately nothing can be done because “most Japanese people don’t see ‘noise’ as a problem, and a large percentage of them actually want this ‘noise.’ ”

Daniel Dolan, a professor of business communications at Waseda University, discovered this when he was writing a paper about the issue titled: “Cultural Noise: Amplified Sound, Freedom of Expression and Privacy Rights in Japan,” published in the International Journal of Communication in 2008.

Dolan, 54, who moved to Japan 20 years ago from Seattle, found that his Japanese wife and acquaintances couldn’t fathom the fuss when he broached the subject and expressed his dismay. Talking to Westerners, however, he encountered understanding, which jibed with a study cited in his paper that found Japanese are far more tolerant of environmental noises than Americans (and less likely to complain about them).

Nevertheless, Japan does have legally binding sound ordinances, much like those of the United States. To prove that these laws were being broken, Dolan took decibel readings with a sound meter where announcements were publicly broadcast and confirmed that they often exceeded the 70-decibel limit. But when he brought the evidence to officials at the local city office and asked why these infractions were permitted, they shrugged and explained that they were understaffed and just had to let it go.

From his research, which focused only on amplified sounds that can’t be avoided, such as those heard outside of stores or in the streets, rather than in places people choose to frequent, such as a pachinko parlor or train, he concluded that there’s one simple way to lower the volume of the soundscape.

“Sound management reform would consist of enforcing laws that are already there,” he said, “not necessarily creating new ones.” But despite the fact that such noise can raise stress levels and cause discomfort, to some at least, he has abandoned this line of inquiry. His paper didn’t lead to any discussion of the matter, and continuing to harp on about it would only alienate people anyway.

“It’s got to be something that Japanese people care about and push to change,” he said. “And I haven’t felt that at all.”

Chris Deegan, an anti-noise activist who hasn’t yet given up the fight, agreed that reform must come from within. Deegan, a 70-year-old translator from London who has lived in Tokyo for over four decades, was once all set to leave Japan because of this very issue. But then, by chance, he heard about an all-Japanese anti-noise group, Shizuka na Machi wo Kangaeru Kai — The Group that Thinks about a Quiet Town — and buoyed by a new sense of solidarity, decided to stay. After the founder quit out of despair, Deegan became the director of the group, which he said has about 60 members nationwide, who are “striving to make Japan just a little quieter.”

He is in charge of the group’s annual publication, Amenity, and organizes get-togethers among members, most of whom are Japanese who have spent some time in the West. Considering the Sisyphean struggle they are up against, they are utterly willing to compromise and have to settle for tiny victories. He and a few members once gently asked an agent at Tachikawa station to turn down the volume or increase the interval of a no-smoking announcement loop they found intrusive. To their surprise, he shut it off. However, six months later it was back on because, the agent said, lots of people had asked why that announcement was no longer broadcast.

“The problem was ordinary people,” Deegan said. “They don’t seem to be affected by it.” Group members also send letters to railway companies and local municipalities and write about their experiences for Amenity, whose latest issue is out this month. For him, the greatest sonic nuisance comes from the emergency PA systems in smaller locales that play melodies and regular announcements that can mercilessly go on and on.

“Ultimately, if we could get Japan down to the level of a Western European country, that would be fantastic,” he said. “But for the time being, if we can just drop the noise any small degree at all, we’ll be happy.”

Want to hear more from the quiet ones?

Chapter 1 of Yoshimichi Nakajima’s “Japanese are Half Fallen” is available in English at bit.ly/halffallen

Daniel Dolan’s paper can be read at: bit.ly/dolanpaper

The homepage for Shizuka na Machi wo Kangaeru Kai is sky.geocities.jp/bunka_so_on

No! Senkyo Car is a network concerned with electioneering noise pollution, and can be found at: no-senkyo-car.com

  • Jason Taverner

    I have often advanced exactly the same argument as Mr. Nakajima when he writes “such relentless noise desensitizes and even infantilizes people, rendering them docile”. This is a real issue of social control, not to mention that the noise pollution is a blight on so much of the public space here. The not-so-hidden health costs are that, as touched on in the article, reams of research show that high levels of noise induce stress responses in the body, even when people supposedly “don’t notice it”, a claim I have often heard from acquaintances.

  • tromm

    From the article it seems that people living for a period of time outside Japan have it rough when they return and are forced to face the unending waves of noize, but those who lived in Japan all their lives simply got used to the noize and just carry on. This is not always the case, of course, but I wonder whether this noize had the same impact on me, a proud European, who’d visit Japan some time.

  • http://registeredalien.weebly.com gpiper

    The Japan Election Law prohibits door-to-door solicitation/campaigning, which is a tremendously good thing. But this explains why candidates have to resort to patrolling the streets shouting their names to gain recognition. It’s not a very sophisticated political election strategy because there is nothing intellectual or intelligent about it. It does not involve the presentation or debate of any policy ideas. It’s only about name recognition. The Election Law specifically limits campaigning to the hours of eight in the morning until eight in the evening. What bothers me the most is the sight of candidates with bull horns outside train and subway stations before eight a.m. trying to gain traction with voters and berating our still sleepy brains with their cacophonous howling. They want to be lawmakers but they start out breaking the law by campaigning before eight a.m. Something ought to be done. Newspaper stories should be published. Arrests should be made. The sad reality, though, is that a complaint against, or arrest of a politicians making illegal early morning campaign noise would simply be met with incomprehension.

  • GBR48

    I find the announcements on trains to be well thought out, useful and comforting. They need to be quite loud as, although passengers are quieter than in Europe, the trains still rattle away. If anything they could do with a few more. When your train stops for no reason for a while, the driver or guard sometimes explains what is going on, in Japanese. If they had a set of recordings, they could press a button for something explanatory in English, Korean and Mandarin.

    Different noises may bug different people. I understand where these folks are coming from as I’m hypersensitive to domestic noise pollution-neighbours’ radios, parties and musical instruments. I resent hearing other people’s noise when I’m in my own home. Domestically I’ve always assumed the Japanese people to be much quieter than Westerners, perhaps because most walls in Japan seem to be thinner than in Europe, homes smaller, and double-glazing rarer. Japanese fascists are definitely louder than European ones though.

    I avoided a couple of stores in Akihabara because the background music was just too loud for me, but walking along hearing half a dozen different AKB48 tracks, one after another, coming from different shops, just made my day. Music overspilling into the street as an ‘intangible cultural asset’, delivering one of those perfect moments that Tokyo offers tourists.

    You have to fear for the hearing of the staff though. They don’t deserve the health issues that come from being subject to persistent, excessively loud noise.

  • Tatami53

    The insanity of noise in Tokyo, where I live, has gotten to the point where I can’t leave the house without earplugs. If I don’t wear them, I have to cover my ears. I do not understand why Japanese people think it’s okay to subject themselves, and their children, to endless bombarding noise day and night. Do they think their hearing will last forever? It is intrusive, annoying, hurtful and ultimately a slap in the face to people who would like to have some peace and quiet. The majority of noise in Tokyo (I can’t speak for the rest of the country) is 100% unnecessary. It’s fabricated, forced, and mind-boggling loud. It’s unacceptable, and the absolutely unwillingness on the part of the Japanese to do anything at all is indicative of what Mr. Nakajima says, that noise “desensitizes and even infantilizes people, rendering them docile.” It is a sad comment that people think it’s okay to blast noise endlessly out of loudspeakers. It hurts our hearing and is wrong, wrong, wrong. Please do not tell me to move. Tokyo is my home, even if I’m a “foreigner.” But, as the article says, unless the Japanese themselves make an issue out of it, nothing will change.

  • Lionel Lyyn

    I live at 200m of a yamanote station (Otsuka). I can hear the melody of the station from my home. I get used to it but I agree, sometimes just reduce the volume can be a good point. But I accept it since japanese seems to like noise.

  • sighclops

    The constant ear-bashing that one endures in Tokyo on a daily basis is the ultimate test of one’s patience. The incessant train announcements are something that irritate me daily, and I have been a daily commuter for several years. Why does a local line, with the same commuters riding at the same times daily, need unrelenting announcements about ご協力お願いします? We know the train line – WE USE IT DAILY. How about they cooperate and put a sock in it for once? Also, ramming train rules down our throats is no way to enforce them.

    Then you get the staff SCREAMING on the train platforms. I understand that at times during peak hour, things can get chaotic, but they do this even when there are very few people around.

    And don’t even get me started on the propaganda trucks…

    Where are the laws against this? This is noise pollution / disturbance of the peace and should be a punishable offence. I want to see fines handed out already!

  • Shirokuma

    You forgot to mention a major scourge of many neighborhoods–the dreaded “haihin kaishusha” (junk collector) trucks that ply even smaller streets at all hours of the day, looping a loud, prerecorded message asking for your unwanted stereos, appliances–anything! There are at least three or four companies regularly crisscrossing my neighborhood alone–sometimes at the same time, the messages, and their echos, rebounding off of the many tall buildings, essentially cancelling one another out. I work at home, and finally got annoyed enough to look up Tokyo’s municipal statute on noise pollution–it specifies not only volume, but the minimum width of the road on which mobile amplified sound like this can be used (it was two meters, I believe). Just coming down my street, they’re already in violation, but my local ward office said that they’re unable to do anything unless their enforcement staff happen to be in the neighborhood to witness a violation taking place…