In August 1974, a 46-year-old man living on the fourth floor of a public apartment building in Hiratsuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, forced his way into the unit below him and killed two little girls and their mother. After attempting suicide he was arrested, and he told police he had been driven to murder by his neighbors’ piano playing. Despite his earlier complaints to his neighbors, they continued to use the instrument. On a door in the family’s apartment, he scrawled, “There was no apology.”

In court, city workers testified they had run audio tests in the apartment and found that even when the piano was played at relatively loud volumes, the amount of sound that bled into the apartment above was within acceptable noise standards set by the prefecture for collective housing. The man received the death penalty, and later he said he could not stand the noise in prison and, wishing to die, withdrew his appeal. To this day he remains on death row.

The case was covered in detail by the media at the time. A number of people drew up a petition to have the sentence reduced, implying that they, too, were driven to distraction by the noise in their collective housing complexes. Though the apartment in this case was built and managed by Kanagawa Prefecture, the national Japan Housing Corporation, which became the semi-public housing concern Urban Renaissance Agency (UR) in 2004, responded to the controversy by increasing the thickness of concrete floor slabs in newly constructed buildings. The case also generated a new term, piano kōgai (piano pollution), which prompted musical instrument makers to install special damping devices on upright pianos.

Of all the problems related to collective living, noise is probably the most intractable. In a 2013 survey of residents living in apartments and condominiums by Seikyo, the nationwide retail cooperative, sōon (bothersome noise) is cited as the most common cause for “trouble with neighbors,” with garbage problems ranking a close second. The research organization Net Asia carried out a similar survey and found that noise problems tend to be “unavoidable” in collective housing when children are involved.

What makes noise more of a problem than garbage collection or other aspects of collective living is that rules and regulations cannot properly address the fact that different people have different thresholds of tolerance. The man in Hiratsuka was clearly oversensitive to sound, a situation aggravated by a psychological disability, according to doctors who tested him. Most apartment dwellers would never think of acting violently, but nonetheless are annoyed by the slightest sound.

In an article published in the Yomiuri Shimbun in 2011, a couple talked about finally buying their dream condo, and immediately after moving in receiving complaints from their downstairs neighbors, who said their seikatsuon (direct translation is “life sounds”) was keeping them awake at night. The couple invited the neighbors into their apartment and asked them to suggest ways of reducing the noise. Afterward, they made sure they took their baths before 10 p.m., and even put their children to bed earlier, but the complaints continued. Eventually, the couple asked building management to act as liaison, and the company hired experts who found that the noise produced by the couple’s activities were well within legal standards. The couple was told not to worry, but their neighbors continued complaining to them directly. The couple was under constant stress. Their dream condo had turned into a nightmare.

Obviously, the older your apartment the less soundproof it is, but noise issues also determine what you can do with your unit after you move in. When we were shopping for condos built by UR we were often told that we would not be able to renovate certain rooms. For instance, when we asked if we could replace the tatami mats in the bedrooms with wooden floors, the agent said we couldn’t because tatami dampened the noise of footfalls.

In other apartments that didn’t have tatami, we found that we also would not be able to replace floors covered with carpet, linoleum or veneer “flooring” with real wood floors because real wood was considered too noisy. In Japan, this particular problem is alleviated greatly by the fact that people don’t wear shoes indoors, but it is still considered a problem nonetheless. Many condos restrict the material used for floors to types that are cushioned or specially soundproofed.

But the main problems are structural. Currently, the common thickness for horizontal slabs in new apartments or condos is 18-22 cm, though for more expensive condos the standard is closer to 25-30 cm. As with anything, the more you pay, the better the quality, which in this case means less noise. If you are sensitive to sound — or have young children yourself — the thing to look for is double-layered ceilings and floors. Builders save a great deal of money by using single-slab ceilings and floors, which are more difficult to soundproof. Unmodified slabs are easy to spot because they usually incorporate boxy protrusions at the edge of the ceiling. These protrusions contain ductwork for wiring, plumbing and other utilities.

Double-layered ceilings have no excess protrusions, because the ductwork is contained in the space between the real ceiling and the upper slab. Double-layer floors are elevated from the slab by means of long bolts and rubber dampers, and soundproofing is laid in the space between. In older condos the flooring and ceiling covering in many cases is applied directly to the slab, which conducts sound more readily. These are referred to as jika floors and ceilings. Another thing to note in older condos is that wiring and plumbing are sometimes embedded in slabs, which means lighting and bathroom fixtures can’t be changed easily.

A reliable real estate agent should be able to explain these matters, but they probably won’t do so voluntarily, which means you will have to ask. It’s always a good idea to inquire as to why the previous owner sold a unit. We always did that when we were looking at several condos, and in at least one case it turned out that noise had something to do with it.

If you are sensitive to sound, then you should look at units on the top floors of buildings, since most nuisance noise comes from above. You should also look into corner units, since that means fewer lateral neighbors. Also, inspect the neighborhood around the building. Public parks, railways and factories can produce a lot of ongoing noise. In 2007, a court shut down a water fountain in a park in the city of Nishi-Tokyo, not because the fountain itself made a lot of noise but because it attracted kids who did and nearby residents complained.

Buying on an upper floor of a high-rise also doesn’t necessarily mean less street noise. Sound can intensify as it rises, especially if there are other buildings around to reflect it. Double-glazed windows are more soundproof than single-glazed windows. By the same token, if you have young children, it’s better to buy a unit on the bottom floor if you’re afraid they may bother your neighbors.

As far as rentals go, many landlords still do not rent to families with children because they don’t want hassles over noise. The same goes for pets and (though it’s not legal in principle) non-Japanese, due to the stereotype of the all-night partying foreigner. The housing surplus has tempered that sort of discrimination to a certain extent. But whether you’re Japanese or not, being on good terms with your neighbors is the best way to avoid trouble. If you plan to entertain a lot of people in your apartment, let them know beforehand. Usually it’s no problem and they’ll appreciate your consideration.

Philip Brasor and Masako Tsubuku blog about Japanese housing at www.catforehead.wordpress.com.

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