Mount Fuji

Noisiest nation in the world? 

In a nation famous for poets and Zen masters who venerate "the way of silence" and who seek tranquility in hushed Japanese gardens, cacophony is winning the day.

Despite its reputation as a land of serenity and chirping cicadas, Japan is a nation of noise — more noise, perhaps, than any other nation on earth.

"It's like a war has been declared on our senses," said psychologist Atsuko Sumitani. "And our senses are losing."

Indeed, and the primary weapon that has turned the tide in favor of noise is the lowly loudspeaker, an implement that in Japan is accorded a status rivaling such indispensable and fundamental inventions as the wheel and the steel plow.

From the time Japanese rise in the morning until they go to bed at night, they are under a constant barrage of announcements, sales pitches, warnings, reminders, and commentaries — all from loudspeakers which have been placed strategically just about everywhere humans might eat, sleep, work or roam.

The announcements are often preceded and followed by buzzers, bells, chimes, sirens or yes, even the greatly amplified chirp of a cicada — a sound which when pushed to the 95-decibel level can sound more like Godzilla than a tiny bug.

"The garbage truck is coming, the garbage truck is coming," blares the speaker atop a blue and white garbage truck as it winds its way through a neighborhood picking up refuse. A moment later, the speaker releases a few bars of "Coming through the Rye" and repeats the announcement.

"We have poles to hang your laundry," screeches a recorded song from a green Toyota pickup with long aluminum rods protruding from the rear. "Toilet paper for your old newspapers," wails another recorded announcement from a blue Subaru van before lapsing into a shortened rendition of Beethoven's "For Elise."

"The train is coming, the train is coming," howl dozens of loudspeakers on the platforms of railroad and subway stations, "it is dangerous so please stand in a neat line behind the white line.” For the benefit of those Japanese who might not know that a train pulling up to a platform can be dangerous, the message is repeated again.

Once on the train, the assault continues with reminders not to spread out newspapers when the train is crowded, or to please sit closer together so more people can sit down, or not to forget anything when you leave the train.

On Tokyo's huge subway system passengers are even given a special warning when the train is about to enter a curve: "We are going around a bend and the train will sway a bit. Please grip the nearest strap tightly."

Even in the relative sanctity of one's automobile one is not free from the onslaught of recorded messages and announcements. Police helicopters sometimes cruise above expressways and city streets delivering lectures on safe driving and accident prevention to drivers who, more often than not, are stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic. Police cars prowl the streets announcing the license numbers of illegally parked cars and warning their owners to move them or find them towed away.

"The noise is infuriating because you can't get away from it," complained Yoshiko Sano, the 79-year-old founder of Japan's Association of Noise Pollution Victims."

"There are no laws in Japan to govern the use of loudspeakers on neighborhood streets or to control the amount of noise shops, vendors and peddlers can make," said Mrs. Sano. Actually, a law to control loudspeakers was passed in 1989 by Japan's Diet but it applies only to the streets around government buildings, foreign embassies and political party headquarters, where Japan's ubiquitous right-wing sound trucks are likely to appear to broadcast political harangues.

"For the average person in Japan the law is meaningless," says Mrs. Sano, a pioneer in fighting noise pollution in a land where, ironically, such battles are often waged in silence. Between 1962 and 1974 when she lived in Tokyo's Shinagawa district, Mrs. Sano waged a war with four small factories that were allowed to open their doors in what since 1941 had been a residential district. Noise from the factories and their trucks along with the bright lights put up for night production crews finally drove Mrs. Sano out of the neighborhood — but not before she filed a lawsuit.

After eight years of court battles she was awarded a cash settlement and moved to Yokohama, where she has continued to wage war against Japan's noise merchants through her Association of Noise Pollution Victims. "The Japanese people have no idea of the adverse effects noise pollution has on the body and mind," adds Mrs. Sano. "A large part of our activity is educating people about how dangerous the noise is they must live with. We want to arouse their concern ... so they will understand the kind of physical and physiological damage noise can cause."

Unfortunately, most Japanese have either decided to accept the continuous barrage of noise or have grown inured to it through a kind of collective conditioning process, say researchers like Sumitani.

In a society that still emphasizes the group over the individual, loudspeakers are seen as an effective tool for inculcating discipline and certain kinds of behavior, say researchers. If the loudspeaker says stay behind the white line, then many Japanese feel ashamed if they don't obey. The problem is that the combined effect of all these recorded announcements constitutes an assault on the senses and contributes to stress.

A recent study of several hundred Tokyo office workers and commuters found that four of 10 were suffering from excessive stress, hearing impairments or some form of stress-related neuroses — a far cry from the serenity Japan's 17th century haiku poet, Matsuo Basho, alluded to when he wrote:

"The voice of a cuckoo
Dropped to the lake
Where it lay floating
on the surface."

"While noise produced by cars, trucks and motorcycles is not unique to Japan, the proliferation of intrusive loudspeakers and recorded messages is.

When one enters even the tiniest store in Japan — whether it's a noodle shop or a giant department store — a recorded message timed to begin when the automatic sliding door opens will issue a loud: "Irasshaimase!" (Welcome!). Once inside, individual displays of products, each with its own recorded message, often implore customers to "Take a look at this watch," or "Please spend your money wisely by buying these pantyhose."

Small airplanes and hovering helicopters sometimes use loudspeakers to buzz neighborhoods to announce sales on used cars and furniture, and following one of Japan's chronic earthquakes, loudspeakers located strategically in trees or on high poles will announce: "We just had an earthquake."

Some parks — especially in large cities like Tokyo — have even placed loudspeakers in trees so taped bird calls can be played for visitors eager to hear the sounds of nature that have been obliterated by ... what else? ... other loudspeakers.

And most ironic of all are the urban Buddhist temples that have installed loudspeakers to broadcast lectures on the virtues of silence. That's a bit like disturbing the sedate atmosphere of a library by making loud and intrusive announcements about not talking.

When it comes to intrusive noise I have always liked the way Ring Lardner handled it in his 1920 book The Young Immigrants when he wrote the following line: "'Shut up,' he explained."

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Editor's noteRonald E. Yates launched his professional career with a BSJ (Bachelor of Science in Journalism) from the University of Kansas back in 1969. Apart from Japan, where he served as Tokyo bureau chief for the Chicago Tribune from 1974 to 1977, and once again from 1985 to 1992, his colorful and sometimes hazardous life as a foreign correspondent has taken him to Vietnam, the Philippines, South Korea, China, Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Cambodia, Malaysia, Afghanistan, India and Pakistan, as well as Mexico, and various hot spots in Central and South America.

Besides penning something like 3,000 articles over the years, he has authored and co-authored several books, perhaps the best known of which is The Kikkoman Chronicles: A Global Company with a Japanese Soul — the fascinating story of how a centuries-old Japanese soy sauce maker steeped in tradition embraced modern technology and marketing methods in order to win success in the tough U.S. market.

From 2003 until his retirement in 2009, Prof. Yates served as Dean of the College of Media at the University of Illinois, which includes the Department of Journalism he previously headed. I would like to express my sincere thanks to him for granting permission to republish the above article here in Japan Perspectives.