Peace and quiet! How rare it is, how precious. Why rare? Because a full-blooded modern economy is no monastery, no “ancient pond” into which a frog may jump, producing the hushed “sound of water” immortalized by the haiku poet Basho (1644-94).
Engines roar, machinery hums, advertisements blare. Try getting away from it. Maybe, just maybe, if you live in a quiet neighborhood, if your walls are thick, if you’re not too near a train station or construction site or compulsively barking dogs or convenience store parking lot or main road over which trucks thunder, you can shut your door against the clamorous chaos of the outside world, close your eyes and sink — until the outside world summons you forth again, as it all too soon will — into that blessed state called silence.
It’s not obvious yet, but this story is about children. What’s the connection? Well, they’re noisy. They can’t help it. They shout with joy, wail with sorrow. Everything’s a big deal to them. Self-restraint is not in their nature, bless them. Adults must make the best of it. It helps, in strained moments when that seems impossible, to recall that you too, after all, were once a child.
Now suppose this: You’ve got your thick walls and your quiet neighborhood, having sacrificed a considerable portion of your income for them — peace and quiet is not cheap! Ah, but it’s worth it. What joy, what relief, to come home at the end of a hectic, frenetic, distracted — that is to say, normal — day and enter a different world, a hushed world, the real world!
Or perhaps you’re retired and spend most of your time at home; perhaps you live alone, and solitude and the passing years have made you a bit crusty: You tire easily, are not as patient as you once were. It’s a fault, to be sure. You would amend it if you could, but after all, your home is your castle — your monastery, even. If you can’t be your own genuine, flawed self here, where can you be?
Suddenly plans are announced to build a day care center right in your neighborhood — for 80, 100, 120 kids. Is it mean-spirited to feel that your little world has been blasted to smithereens? No doubt it is. You are aware, as everyone is, how important day care is. Japan needs working women, and it needs children. Without day care it can have one or the other — not both. So day care centers must be built.
But why here? Why just where I happen to live?
Well, they have to be somewhere. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, acknowledging a dire shortage, has promised day care accommodation for an additional 400,000 children by 2017.
Day care operators, established and would-be, are rising to the challenge. So are local residents — with massive protests. In an upscale neighborhood in Tokyo’s Shinagawa Ward, Aera magazine reported in April, 1,700 residents in the immediate vicinity of a planned three-story facility for 90 children signed a petition against it. To working mothers desperate for relief, this smacks of a reactionary inability to change with the times. “People around here think mothers should stay home with their kids all day long,” grumbles the 39-year-old mother of a 6-year-old.
There’s that, but also more.
The women’s weekly Shukan Josei finds Shinagawa echoing far afield. In Fukuoka, a planned center for 120 children ran aground against local opposition. The company behind it did its best. It held meeting after meeting with residents — seven altogether. You’re worried about noise? We’ll install soundproofing You’re afraid our kids will take over the local park? We’ll send them out in small groups, and clean up after them. And so on and so on.
No dice. The locals weren’t buying. Finally, the company pulled out. Better safe than sorry. There are cautionary examples of what might have been in store for it had it proceeded. In Saitama, neighbors are up in arms against an existing day care center. Noise, first of all. The center installed double windows and air conditioning. Better, but not good enough. Then there were the curry smells wafting from the day care kitchen chimney. The center put in a filter. Another problem: Women were edgy about their drying laundry being in plain view of kids playing on the day care center roof. The center put up a fence. On and on it went — and goes.
It can end up in court. One in Tokyo is currently hearing a suit by residents to the effect that a neighborhood day care center “violates their right to a quiet life.”
Is there such a right in today’s society? If so, day care centers are hardly the worst offenders. Let the reader draw up his or her own personal list of pet nuisances in this crowded, cheek-by-jowl country, and then think how swamped the courts will be if they get dragged into this morass. And yet, the “right to a quiet life” does seem somehow an essential part of civilization, whatever its standing in law might be.
Meanwhile in Osaka, Shukan Josei reports, residents last year told a company planning a day care center in their area that they’d drop their opposition — providing the company paid annual compensation for the inconveniences that would inevitably result. No thanks, said the company, giving up at last.
So who wins this tug of war between the individual’s rights and society’s claims? No one, so far.