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The noise problem in conflict averse Japan

21 Comments
By James M. Rogers
A sign asking people to be mindful of noise,
A sign asking people to be mindful of noise. Image: James Rogers

Having harmony with others is very important in Japanese society. So, people rarely make a racket in public. However, Japan is also a conflict-averse nation. This aspect has led to an ironic problem in that when someone makes noise, others hesitate to confront them because it creates conflict. Thus, certain people who make a lot of noise are tolerated despite Japan’s strict laws.

The usual suspects

If you have ever lived in a decent-sized city in Japan, you will probably be familiar with the usual suspects regarding noise pollution. Their main weapon of choice to disturb your peace of mind and maybe even damage your hearing is the ubiquitous megaphone. Whether toting them on their belt or mounting them atop their vehicles, they will ensure they are heard far and wide across Japan during the day.

Politicians

Political-rally-on-a-major-road-in-Nagoya_Rogers.jpg
A political rally broadcasting via loudspeakers on a major road in Nagoya. Image: James Rogers

One type of noise that everyone in Japan has experienced at some point is from politicians. Around election times, politicians will either stand at major intersections with a megaphone to give their speeches, or they will slowly drive around neighborhoods with megaphones attached to the automobile’s roof and give their speeches from the inside. They often give such speeches when there is the most foot traffic, such as rush hour. It is obvious that no one wants to hear a political speech blasted into their ears at illegal levels on their way to or from work, so no one stops to listen to them. It seems meaningless, but it is a custom for politicians to do, unfortunately.

Bosozoku

Another type of noise nearly everyone has encountered is from bosozoku (motorcycle gangs). Especially on weekend nights, they disturb entire neighborhoods by repeatedly putting their bikes into neutral and revving their engines. Although their numbers have dwindled significantly since their peak in the 1980s, no matter what city you live in, you will probably hear them at some point.

Recycle-business trucks

Unfortunately, noise is even prevalent in seemingly quiet residential areas. Recycle businesses slowly drive trucks there with megaphones on their roofs. An advertisement is played on a loop that asks if you have any large items to throw away, such as televisions, since throwing away such items costs money. This can be convenient, but getting that one customer who wants to throw away something requires constant noise pollution for the entire neighborhood. Putting a flier in people’s mailboxes and letting them call when they want something taken away would be more efficient. In fact, some recycling businesses do this. However, most do not.

Kerosene trucks

Another noise issue you may run into in residential areas is from kerosene trucks. Some Japanese people still use portable kerosene heaters. You can buy kerosene at some gas stations, but many people also simply buy it from trucks selling it that drive around neighborhoods regularly. These trucks let everyone know they are there to sell it with a loud advertisement on a loop blasted from a megaphone on the truck’s roof as it slowly drives around the neighborhood.

Protesters

Nuclear-power-protester_Rogers.jpg
A nuclear power protester at a major intersection in Nagoya. Image: James Rogers

Another type of noise is from protesters. People in Japan protest against various things, such as nuclear power, the “my number” system, etc. Like politicians, they usually conduct their protests near large stations or intersections and use megaphones at extremely loud volumes.

Right-wing groups

Another loud disturbance is from right-wing political groups. These organizations are known for their loud and aggressive anti-immigration opinions and negative feelings toward the Chinese and North Korean governments. They will be seen at varying times throughout the year, but certainly every year across every major city in large numbers on Japan’s Constitution Memorial Day.

What are Japan’s noise laws?

The Japanese government’s Ministry of the Environment provides information on laws regarding noise pollution here and here. Although the law does not say anything about megaphones in general, it does provide useful data to judge whether or not the types of noise I’ve mentioned are in potential violation of the law.

In residential areas, the maximum level of noise permitted is 60 dB during the day and 50 dB at night. If the residential area borders a single-lane road, the limit is 55 dB during the day and 45 dB at night. In non-residential areas that border a road with more than two lanes, the limit is 80 dB during the day and 65 dB at night.

Can you repeat that?

The U.S. CDC provides examples of what level of noise can create hearing damage. At 110 dB, it is equivalent to shouting or barking in the ear, and hearing loss can occur in less than two minutes. At 120 dB, it is like standing beside or near a siren, and the sound of firecrackers is listed as 140-150 dB.

Just how loud are the usual suspects?

Decibel-level-of-a-protesters-speech_Rogers.jpg
The registered decibel level of a protester’s speech at Nagoya station. Image: James Rogers

So, how loud exactly are all of these kinds of disturbances in Japan? Well, I actually purchased a decibel meter and went out to see how loud they are.

In a single-lane, residential area at night, the jingle from a kerosene truck was clocked at 86.1 dB, nearly double the 45 dB limit. During the day in the same neighborhood, I also found a recycling truck blaring its advertisement at 94.3 dB, again, significantly more than the 55 dB maximum allowed limit.

At one corner bordering a four-lane road, one group of protesters hit an eardrum-shattering 132.1 dB at one point as I walked past them. They were not unique either. On other days, other protesters there were clocked at 130.2 dB and 130.5 dB. At 130 dB, these protesters are making noise at a level between standing next to a siren and having a firecracker go off near you.

Politicians were similarly loud. At the same location, I recorded one at 112.4 dB. And I was not surprised to clock one right-wing protester at 121.4 dB.

Unfortunately, the bosozoku proved too elusive to catch, but anyone who has come into contact with them knows that the racket they make is excessive.

“At 130 dB, these protesters are making noise right next to you, akin to a level between standing next to a siren and a firecracker.”

Ending on a positive note

One type of noise I admit I love is when the yaki imo (roasted sweet potatoes) salesperson comes in summertime. Traditionally, a man will push a cart around neighborhoods selling them, playing a song with a cute melody that goes, “ishi yaki imo...yaki imo (rock-roasted sweet potatoes...sweet potatoes).” The combination of good weather and vacation from school, along with this delicious food, makes this one kind of noise that no one ever complains about.

As Japan’s economic issues persist due to its dwindling population, the government must focus on maintaining tax revenue. One way to do this is to bring money into Japan from abroad through tourism. This is actually something Japan has thrived at doing over the last few decades. However, not only does Japan need to bring tourists over to keep its revenue up, it needs to keep them coming back. Thus, ensuring they have a pleasant experience and leave with their eardrums intact is paramount. So, addressing Japan’s noise problem is advisable, not only for this reason but also to maintain harmony for Japanese people themselves.

Dr. James Rogers is a university professor who has published books and over 50 articles on linguistics and Japanese studies.

© Japan Today

©2024 GPlusMedia Inc.

21 Comments
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Another of the intriguing paradoxes of Japan.

Silence is Golden - except when it isn't.

Social etiquette requires low voices, but go anywhere as the article suggests and you can come across mind-numbing levels of loudness.

The petrol pump at my gas station "yells" in a loud voice instructions and blasts noisy ads.

The local shopping center plays never-ending music on a loop - a lot of it inappropriate as they don't understand the English lyrics.

As the writer indicated - loud intrusive noise is common.

But quietness is a bastion of society.

Go figure.

6 ( +8 / -2 )

You can use a smartphone app to measure the levels of noise around you. I live in a mostly silent place where there is hardly any noise, except for the occasional sound of trucks selling tofu, collecting recyclables, paraffin, and election vans when elections are happening. These sounds are not a regular occurrence, and during nighttime, it's completely silent. I love the silence.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

The article doesn't mention them, but another big noise polluter is 6:30 AM radio exercises. Participants are mostly elderly, and they will set up the radio in parks surrounded by apartments and blast that music.

Getting out and exercising is great for your health, but depriving the neighbors of their sleep damages their health. This is the society that invented the Walkman; just wear headphones and you can dial the volume up all you like!

4 ( +4 / -0 )

After watching films and dramas from Japan and Korea, one thing I have noticed is the elevated noise level inside homes and offices. Many homes over here have double pane windows, which cuts down on the interior noise.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

Another of the intriguing paradoxes of Japan.

Silence is Golden - except when it isn't.

Social etiquette requires low voices, but go anywhere as the article suggests and you can come across mind-numbing levels of loudness.

The petrol pump at my gas station "yells" in a loud voice instructions and blasts noisy ads.

The local shopping center plays never-ending music on a loop - a lot of it inappropriate as they don't understand the English lyrics.

As the writer indicated - loud intrusive noise is common.

But quietness is a bastion of society.

Go figure.

Excellent point.

-3 ( +6 / -9 )

Basic manners towards those outside the family/colleague clique are lacking.

We had a nocturnally noisy neighbour in our complex.

Faked complaining letters from every resident,and voila, problems solved.

-2 ( +1 / -3 )

One place I hate hearing excessively loud noise is at ski resorts. Have you ever gone up a ski lift without J-pop, especially 90s J-pop, being blasted into your ears? I'd love to hear the wind blowing through nature instead.

Also, this nonsense about speaking in lowered voices doesn't ring true for TV either. A Western movie star who was on a Japanese TV talk show and who didn't know a lick of Japanese commented afterwards that it sounded like every "talento" was yelling and screaming every time they spoke and joked. He said it was a little jarring.

Maybe if the police would actually enforce these noise pollution laws, like we pay them to do, we'd get a little peace and quiet in our neighborhoods and lives.

7 ( +8 / -1 )

Japanese walls are usually quite thin, and after working long days, many watch TV rather loud into the small hours. That was annoying, but beaten by the individual who played his piano at 3am one morning.

Japan doesn't zone as strictly as some countries. It's common to find workshops and small manufacturers alongside residential properties. Regular circular saw use can't be pleasant.

Anime TV is often very bizarrely shouty.

Trains are deliciously quiet as most people are buried in their device screens or putting on make-up.

7 ( +8 / -1 )

This from JapanToday 5 years ago:

"Despite Japan’s international image as a country of serene temples and quiet gardens, according to a 2018 report by the World Health Organization, Japan is the noisiest country in the world."

https://japantoday.com/category/features/lifestyle/japan%E2%80%99s-problem-with-noise-pollution

Personally, I want to spend as little time as possible in many shops, many restaurants and stations so the noise may mean they are loosing custom from not only myself but others too. Many of my Japanese friends don't like noise or have been traumatised by having to work in stores with endless loud jingles in their student days.

2 ( +5 / -3 )

I'm trying to make a comment with merit but the woman upstairs has her music on so loud I can hardly think. If you can hear me I have to say this problem is not in Japan alone. I've worked at campus towns here in the US where the townspeople have mostly moved to the countryside. And the big cities (New York, Chicago, LA, and others) can make your ears ring like you had a front row seat at a Stones concert. I SAID, MAKE YOUR EARS RING, LIKE YOU'VE JUST BEEN TO A STONES CONCERT.

-2 ( +0 / -2 )

Trains are deliciously quiet as most people are buried in their device screens or putting on make-up.

Except for the loud announcements telling you how to get off, what not to do, what to do, how to sit, who to give up your seat to, how to be quiet, what not to forget and various silly tunes and sounds, often repeated nowadays in three more languages.

2 ( +4 / -2 )

Groups of people in bars and restaurants who clap at everything they think is even remotely funny is the one that gets me. If it's funny, laugh.

And the early morning newspaper/magazine scooter deliveries.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

What surprised me about this article is that there actually is laws regulating this. Because Japan really is unbelievably noisy. And what gets me is that it is everywhere. Anouncements, music, warnings, sounds.

After ten years here I am still amazed at Don Quixiote though. It must truly be the noisiest place on the planet. No matter where you stand in the shop you always hear at least three different noises and two different kinds of music. I am always exhausted when I leave there.

5 ( +5 / -0 )

Well, I live in an area where many tourists visit you see. Many from China, Thailand and their neighboring countries make an awful noise. They seem to shout rather than talk and lately walk-around shouting into their phones on speaker, even seen that on the subway.

-3 ( +3 / -6 )

Noise and bright flashing lights have always deterred me from entering a pachinko parlor.

6 ( +7 / -1 )

I agree that there's an odd contradiction here between embracing noise and embracing quiet.

I was once in a clothing store in a mall, where they were having a limited-time sale. To advertise it, there were three staff members INSIDE the not-so-big store, standing on stools, shouting a nonstop stream of promotions at the top of their voices, simultaneously, over each other (they were all shouting different things). I'm generally a tolerant person, but I've never been so overwhelmed and irritated in a store in my life. I had two things I wanted to buy in my arms when that started, but threw them down and ran out the door to escape.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

Noise and bright flashing lights have always deterred me from entering a pachinko parlor.

Watched the Pachinko scene in Lost in Translation and that was enough for me.

-3 ( +0 / -3 )

I think this is why the Walkman was created in Japan.

Before that, there were radios and tape decks that had earphone jacks, but Sony made one small enough to be truly portable.

Not all the time, but sometimes, it is so enjoyable to see daily life accompanied by your favourite soundtrack.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

I find it really ironic that Japan has all of these "please keep quiet" signs and reminders when in reality, so many public spaces there are some of the noisiest places I've ever experiences. They mostly come from their incessant advertising - speakers everywhere in shops and supermarkets. Sometimes it's the staff that's doing the advertising at the top of their voices. It's overwhelming to be constantly bombarded by that wall of noise while you browse around and I am not a fan. I'm also still traumatised by how the staff all scream at you when you enter an establishment. The first time it happened, it almost made me bolt; I was so shocked.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

Not all the time, but sometimes, it is so enjoyable to see daily life accompanied by your favourite

Tokyo is so loud I can’t hear my music. It got to a point where I’d full-blast my ears, and think I must have damaged my hearing, but that’s another story. I then got a pair of monitor headphones, and used to worry other people could hear too; but that seems impossible. There’s just too much noise.

can make your ears ring like you had a front row seat at a Stones concert. I SAID, MAKE YOUR EARS RING, LIKE YOU'VE JUST BEEN TO A STONES CONCERT.

I heard you the first time, so I know what you mean. Not front row seats, but standing room only. Stage right. Wembley 1990. But they weren’t as loud as the Who. I SAID, THEY WEREN’T AS LOUD AS…..oh never mind.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Those election season vehicles driving around blasting the loudspeaker is a ptsd nightmare and extremely annoying

However the garbage truck plays classical music ha ha

1 ( +1 / -0 )

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