As the population declines, intolerance of children and the noise they make is increasing in a society growing less accustomed to hearing them, some child care experts say.
While convenience stores blare electronic greetings and political candidates shout through high-volume megaphones at train stations, day care centers are putting up sound barriers to muffle the din that toddlers make, and sports clubs are restricting the times that youngsters can play outside to avoid upsetting the neighbors.
Child care experts and politicians have voiced concern that this creates a self-perpetuating problem: Despite the falling birthrate, it is seen as less acceptable for parents to expect nonparents to put up with inconveniences caused by their offspring.
When it comes to complaints, “it’s now happening daily,” said Masako Maeda, a specialist in population at Konan University in Kobe. “As society has fewer and fewer children, people get less used to hearing them.
“It’s a vicious circle: Fewer children makes people less accustomed to hearing the noise they naturally make, which spawns complaints about them and contributes to the growing feeling among younger parents that they don’t want to have more children.”
Maeda said that when she was involved in a project to build day care centers in Yokohama, she faced a lot of opposition from people living nearby.
“We were once told not to take the children for a walk” because they make too much noise, she said.
Nobuto Hosaka, the mayor of Setagaya Ward, Tokyo, who has built up a sizable following on Twitter for his comments on the issue, said he fears for the future of a country that can’t tolerate the natural noise of children.
“I’m told that kids at one junior high school got complaints from people living nearby about the chanting when they were doing running practice,” he said. “Now they have to practice in silence.”
Outdoor playtime at one day care center is limited to 45 minutes a day. Whatever the weather, a traditional festival in another town now has to be held indoors.
“Of course we need to be considerate toward people living in the neighborhood, but it is impossible to make places where children play in total silence,” Hosaka said.
People who complain don’t grasp the connection between these noisy youngsters and their own future, he said.
“It is astounding those people who worry about their own pensions and how society is going to pay for social security won’t tolerate” the people who are someday going to pay the taxes that foot the bill, he said.
An official in Meguro Ward, Tokyo, said the number of complaints about noisy children peaks in the summer when youngsters go to outdoor pools.
One possible explanation, she said, is that more people in densely populated areas stay at home during the daytime as the population ages.
Around a quarter of Japan’s 128 million people are 65 or over, while the birthrate is falling short of the level needed to keep the population stable.
Children under 15 years of age account for just 13.2 percent of the population, the lowest in the world and less than half the global average of 26.8 percent, according to United Nations figures from 2010.
In Taiwan, which also has a low birthrate and an aging population, the Environmental Protection Administration in August 2011 clamped down on noise.
It introduced a rule allowing for fines of up to 15,000 New Taiwan dollars (about ¥50,000) for people who disturb the quiet of others living in the same building.
The move drew criticism from parents of young children, who complained they were being unfairly targeted.
“It’s impossible to ask children to sit still all day long so they don’t make noise,” said Annie Shen, a teacher in Taipei and mother of two boys, aged 1 and 6.
In Tokyo last year, a family sued a day care center for ¥17.46 million in damages for their mental suffering and demanding the facility stop making noise.
“We asked the family to make a public filing of their complaint,” said Hiromi Yamaguchi, president of JP Holdings, operator of the day care center.
A lawsuit “would determine which side is right,” Yamaguchi said, noting the center had erected sound barriers and limited the time children can play, but that wasn’t enough to stop the family from complaining.
The suit is still in the courts.
Japan has known for a long time that it has a problem with a low birthrate and in 2005 the government created a Cabinet post to help tackle the problem.
December’s change of government brought the 15th occupant to the post.
Kuniko Inoguchi, the first person to be named state minister for handling the declining birthrate, said Japan must understand that children are not a social nuisance.
“People’s values are wavering,” she said in an interview. “We have to push child-bearing issues to the top of the social agenda so that fewer people think these kinds of complaints are acceptable.