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The high cost of peace and quiet

by Michael Hoffman

Special To The Japan Times

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.

  • Guest

    Exactly. No one winning. The other day I was so intrigued by a person
    named Gordon Hempton, who is a Sound Tracker, collects all kinds of
    nature sounds, and has been working on a project called One Square Inch
    of Silence. He insists on the importance of quiet but to him, and to me
    as well at least, silence is an essential for human beings, not a
    luxury.

    There isn’t much we can do but I always think
    why don’t we stop playing all kinds of unnecessary music or
    announcements. If you are on a train, especially a bullet train, you
    constantly hear all kinds of announcements. Multi-lingual announcements
    are okay but no commercials please, like that one that says you can get
    some local stuff from a person with a cart who will be coming to your
    seat in a minute. On a plane, just the same. On a bus, you never get a
    moment’s rest after work because of the bus stop announcements followed
    by commercials. I didn’t hear any of them on a bus in some foreign
    countries. And it felt so “normal” and I thought this is the way it
    should be.

    I don’t watch baseball games on TV in Japan
    but in the US I enjoyed watching it in the stadium because there were no
    those people playing trumpets or drums or shouting songs. Just people
    reacting to what’s happening in the field. So relaxing and enjoyable and
    very human I would say.

    There should be other ways of
    making announcements even in your local areas. You hear music and
    announcements blasting from speakers installed throughout the area, and
    those announcements are usually relevant only for elderly people or
    children. We should be able to communicate them in other ways that do
    not obstruct working people’s much-needed sleep from seven o’clock in
    the Sunday mornings.

    And if you go to a hospital, your
    are “forced” to watch a TV while you are in a waiting room. Just let’s
    be quiet because that is what you need in a hospital at least. I want to
    read while waiting but can’t usually, because of the noise from TV.
    Looking at people who just watch TV as they are provided with in front
    of them, it feels like they do not have any thought or desire or any
    thinking ability. Just watching TV with a blank expression on their
    face. They seem deprived of their ability to think and It’s kind of
    scary to me.

    But let’s start first with stopping those music and announcements is what I would suggest to the society.

  • Masaki K

    Exactly. No one winning. The other day I was so intrigued by a person named Gordon Hempton, who is a Sound Tracker, collects all kinds of nature sounds, and has been working on a project called One Square Inch of Silence. He insists on the importance of quiet but to him, and to me as well at least, silence is an essential for human beings, not a luxury.

    There isn’t much we can do but I always think why don’t we stop playing all kinds of unnecessary music or announcements. If you are on a train, especially a bullet train, you constantly hear all kinds of announcements. Multi-lingual announcements are okay but no commercials please, like that one that says you can get some local stuff from a person with a cart who will be coming to your seat in a minute. On a plane, just the same. On a bus, you never get a moment’s rest after work because of the bus stop announcements followed by commercials. I didn’t hear any of them on a bus in some foreign countries. And it felt so “normal” and I thought this is the way it should be.

    I don’t watch baseball games on TV in Japan but in the US I enjoyed watching it in the stadium because there were no those people playing trumpets or drums or shouting songs. Just people reacting to what’s happening in the field. So relaxing and enjoyable and very human I would say.

    There should be other ways of making announcements even in your local areas. You hear music and announcements blasting from speakers installed throughout the area, and those announcements are usually relevant only for elderly people or children. We should be able to communicate them in other ways that do not obstruct working people’s much-needed sleep from seven o’clock in the Sunday mornings.

    And if you go to a hospital, your are “forced” to watch a TV while you are in a waiting room. Just let’s be quiet because that is what you need in a hospital at least. I want to read while waiting but can’t usually, because of the noise from TV. When I find people who just watch TV as they are provided with in front of them, it feels like they do not have any thought or desire or any thinking ability. Just watching TV with a blank expression on their face. They seem deprived of their ability to think and It’s kind of scary to me.

    But let’s start first with stopping those music and announcements is what I would suggest to the society.