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Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2002

THE ZEIT GIST

Japan masters the art of noise

Tokyo residents should keep earplugs handy


By KEVIN REA

There is no cure, no medicine, no surgery that can reverse the damage done. You probably won't die of it, but the unknowing victims number in their millions and are usually only diagnosed after it is much too late. This totally preventable scourge is noise pollution and Japan is arguably one the world's most egregious offenders.

News photo
Is Shibuya bad for your health?

Since the 1997 Kyoto protocol on climate change, public awareness in Japan of the issues regarding environmental pollution has increased to the point where progress is being made on many fronts.

Victims of industrial air pollution are winning lawsuits. Leaky nuclear power plants are under review. Maverick politicians are questioning the need for unnecessary public works projects. The list goes on.

But the one form of environmental degradation that politicians and the public in general here turn a blind eye to is noise pollution.

Today, living in any large city in Japan is becoming more hazardous to your health than ever before. What with the toxicity of diesel exhaust fumes and the dangers of second-hand smoke, not to mention mercury-riddled whale sashimi, every trip into The Big Mikan is chipping away at your chances of reaching 100.

And research carried out at Texas A&M University, has found that excessive noise levels pose health consequences beyond hearing damage, including elevated blood pressure. higher risk of heart attack, increased levels of destructive stress hormones, and skewed mental ability.

Search for regulations on noise pollution in Japan and you will find that there are none. It seems you can make as much racket as you want as long as nobody complains. Hence the prevalence of the local junk man with a loudspeaker patrolling the neighborhood offering to relieve you of defunct electric appliances -- at 8:30 on a Sunday morning. Or the local school sports day with multiple loudspeakers encouraging the three-legged race at mega-decibels -- at 8:30 on a Sunday morning.

If you want to stand in front of the station and tout your political beliefs, however, you do need a permit. You will then have a license to split eardrums from 8 a.m. till 8 p.m. The same applies to mobile sound trucks in the two months preceding elections.

There are no decibel limits accompanying the permits. Whether the ubiquitous rightwing sound trucks even bother applying for the paltry piece of paper is open to debate. As for loudspeakers in front of shops, it is a phonic free for all. In Japan it is called freedom of speech. Anywhere else it would be called infraction of local bylaw No. 143567, punishable by a hefty fine or a term in jail.

If you do have a beef about noise in your neighborhood, one thing the city hall may do is lend out a portable decibel meter free of charge to back up your complaint, although the lack of noise regulations makes its use rather redundant. A quick trip around Tokyo with the handy little machine, however, makes for some hair-raising statistics.

Medical knowledge has it that the nerve endings in your ears are being irrecoverably damaged if the background decibel level is such that you have to shout to make yourself heard above it (decibels are measured logarithmically -- as decibel intensity increases by units of 10, each increase is 10 times the lower figure. Twenty decibels is 10 times the intensity of 10 decibels, and 30 decibels is 100 times as intense as 10 decibels). As the following numbers will attest, living into Tokyo will soon put you on a fast road to aural decrepitude.

Say, for example, you and a friend decide to head into town for a day of shopping.

You will probably be carrying on a normal conversation at 60 decibels. On your way to the station you stop at a normal four-lane intersection. You'll have to strain your voice over the 80-plus decibels. An ambulance drives by with a loudspeaker blaring over the siren. One hundred and ten decibels make conversation impossible.

If you decide to have a quick game of pachinko, past practice at sign language will come in very handy as it is the only way to communicate over the martial music, constant loudspeaker exhortations, and rattle of thousands of steel balls that reach 95 decibels, more than a fleet of lawnmowers.

You then arrive at the station platform and shouting is the only way to make yourself heard above the 80-90 decibel melange of recorded announcements telling you to keep away from the tracks, which are augmented by live announcements telling you to keep away from the tracks, which are overdubbed by merry jingles indicating a train is arriving, followed by reminders telling you not to forget your belongings because the doors are closing, the doors are closing, THE DOORS ARE CLOSING!!!

The inside of the train is an oasis of calm at a meager 75-80 decibels. The new Oedo Line, however, clocks in at a consistent 90 decibels, enough to make your ears ring after you stagger out at your destination. If you are so unfortunate as to change trains at Shinbashi, your cranium fins are in for a real drubbing.

Apart from the usual symphony of bells, buzzers and announcements, more often than not there is a rightwinger haranguing the poor oyaji salarymen in the square beside the station. Even from the relative safety of the train platform this registers at an appalling 90 to 100 decibels (equivalent to chainsaws or pneumatic drills).

If your ears aren't already bleeding, you'll be ready to continue on with your trip.

Shibuya is popular with the younger crowd, hence the plethora of giant TV screens (four at last count outside the station, at least two more up the road), all competing with each other at full volume. Unfortunately, politicians and rightwingers like to sound off there at the same time.

The rightwingers, always in tune with the times, have been known to play the latest Morning Musume hits at distortion-level volume while cruising the (always grid-locked) streets. The crescendo there reaches the by now common-or-garden level of 90-100 decibels.

Searching for specs in your average Shibuya shop nets 82-plus decibels, while if you happen to be checking out baby clothes, in one well-known store the music hits a not undiscolike 80 decibels.

By the time you get home, your ears should be ringing, your head throbbing and you'll be ready to throttle the budgie if he so much as chirps.

Congratulations! You are now well on your way to becoming deaf as the proverbial post.



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