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Silent majority blasted by political noise

by Michael Hoffman

Here’s another election upon us — a fitting time to reflect on tranquility and its opposite, cacophony.

The tranquility of tearoom and meditation hall, the stillness of the cicada’s cries “sinking deep into the rocks,” are long gone — mourned by some, forgotten by most. The cicada image, borrowed from the 17th-century haiku master Basho, appeared in this very newspaper, in an editorial titled “Worsening noise pollution.” The editorial itself is something of an artifact — it ran on Aug. 18, 1984.

It notes, “Grievances about noise accounted for more than 30 percent of all 63,559 complaints about environmental pollution filed with ward offices and other local authorities in fiscal 1982.”

It proceeds, “There is almost no need to cite these official figures to describe how badly our living environment has deteriorated regarding noise, however. Our daily lives are full of noises from early in the morning till well past midnight, to the detriment of our mental and physical health.”

There follows a litany that will sound perfectly familiar to anyone in Japan today: “Traffic noises, blaring music and screaming voices from public address systems at railroad stations, department stores, supermarkets … the so-called ‘background music’ tapes played incessantly at coffee shops, restaurants, hotels …” and so on — all of which “not only creates a sort of sound-drunk condition but also damages our hearing ability in the long run.”

No mention, oddly enough, of nationalist sound trucks blasting martial music and rhetoric at excruciating volume. No mention either of election campaigns and children. Since the postwar inception of democracy, candidates have tortured voters (and nonvoters) with their names shouted through powerful loudspeakers — over and over and over again. The young women who accompany them, also shouting, are called uguisu-jo (roughly “nightingale girls”). Music to some people’s ears, maybe. Really? Anyway, brace for it.

Children. What have they got to do with this? They’re noisy of course, but (as we all know) adorably so. They can get on your nerves, but only a curmudgeon would resent them for it. Nobuto Hosaka, mayor of Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward, wrote in Aera magazine last week that a society that regards its children as nuisances is on the way down.

Is Japan becoming that kind of society? Aera fears it is. Last summer Hosaka tweeted, “People come to the ward office to complain that children in neighborhood day-care centers disturb them with their noise.” The tweet struck a chord. Many people responded, some saying yes it’s true, others retorting that if kids aren’t noisy there’s something wrong somewhere.

Japan is a country that no longer takes the existence of children for granted. Many developed countries are heading the same way. Japan, owing to its conspicuously low birthrate and particularly long life span, is a little ahead, a showcase of the price to be paid for economic and technological progress coupled with laggard social policies. In July, Aera reports, a Yokohama day-care center cut back its swimming pool time in response to complaints of noise from local residents. A Tokyo day-care center four years ago decided it had better call off the drum-playing that had been part of its term-ending ceremony for years. The center had received an anonymous letter: “I suffer from a mental illness and if that drumming goes on I don’t know what I might do.”

People at home are entitled to their peace and quiet. Elderly people living alone are particularly vulnerable to stress from children’s shouts and laughter, Hosaka admits. But how tightly can you bottle kids up? “When I was a journalist in the 1980s and ’90s,” he wrote in Aera, “I covered school violence and bullying, and observed the connection between those problems and a lack of opportunity for children to play together. Children need to cry and laugh at the top of their lungs. It’s part of growing up. Take away children’s right to play and there will be major social repercussions down the road.”

The actress Sadako Sawamura (1908-1996) published a book of childhood reminiscences in 1978 called “My Asakusa,” after the Tokyo neighborhood in which she grew up. In a chapter titled “Playing in the Alleys” she reminisces about how kids played 100 or so years ago: “Provided with only a few toys, children made their play enjoyable by singing and talking. And the merry songs and happy games, passed on by word of mouth, spread like wildfire. From morning to evening, whenever they were together, the chatty children of Asakusa sang various songs at the top of their voices.” (Sample lyric: “Father’s head is bald and shiny/ Slippery, slippery, slippery.”) Nobody ever dreamed of telling them to shut up.

Nor does anyone in our day seem to have thought seriously of telling society as a whole to shut up, or at least pipe down. Why just children, they whose noise, and whose noise pretty much alone, rings with life, health, growth, spontaneous and natural feeling? Wouldn’t it be nice — it’s just a suggestion — if election candidates in the campaign that kicks off Tuesday set an example, bellowing their names a little less loudly, a little less frequently, thus giving voters a little more time to think a little bit quietly about who is worth voting for?