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Japan's Widespread Public Announcement Seen as Noisy, Ineffective - 2003-05-06

As in many big cities around the world, the urban centers of Japan are full of noise. Besides the usual honking of car horns, the pounding of jackhammers and the shouts of food vendors, Japan assaults the ear with a barrage of loudspeakers.

Step outside in Tokyo or any other city in Japan and you will hear a myriad of announcements blaring over loudspeakers.

There are the reminders to vote in upcoming elections - atop loudspeaker trucks, candidates for office shout to potential voters - and there are relentless appeals for blood donations. In department stores, shoppers are bombarded with safety announcements: one asks customers to hold on to the escalator handrails, despite the never-ending request, most shoppers do not obey.

Even the chirping of birds here is man-made a signal to the visually impaired that it is safe to cross the street.

To many Japanese these amplified sounds are too frequent, too loud or just plain unnecessary.

In a recent survey by the NHK television network, two thirds of commuters thought the announcements in railway stations are irritating and too loud.

Some Japanese, while not yet shouting "quiet!", are politely appealing for the din to be lowered.

Professor Kenji Yoshida, a philosopher at Kamakura Women's University, is a member of a group named The Association to Think About Loudspeaker Sounds, says his organization realizes the announcements are made to give people information, but they are quite annoying. He says Japan has too many announcements asking people to do things and follow rules but those rules are not really enforced.

An example, he says, is the repetitive recording asking train passengers not to talk on their cellular phones, but conductors never personally warn violators they spot. Thus, the professor says, the announcements are meaningless.

One Japanese man who is especially attuned to the problem is Minoru Nagata of Tokyo. He is an acoustical expert who has designed concert halls in Japan and other countries. Dr. Nagata said it is not just the volume of Japan's unnecessary noises that bothers him.

"Sound quality is not comfortable," he said. "Only to penetrate, to attack - that is the intention. There is no consideration for the comfortable environment. The tone quality of the sound system in the audio equipment in Japan is very high, but the sound quality in the public space is not so good."

This comes in a culture traditionally known for subtlety, in which the norm was visual blank spaces in painting and long pauses in music, plays, everyday speech. Dr. Nagata blames modernization.

"Many children, they don't know what is the importance of the silence," said Mr. Nagata. "I am afraid 20 years or 50 years later they have completely lost their sensitivity, I think so."

Things are beginning to sound a bit better. Japan's national railway used to sound shrill bells and buzzers at train stations. It has replaced that cacophony with melodies.

But many commuters find the new sounds almost as irritating because the tunes are cut off in mid-note instead of fading out.

Professor Yoshida says his group continually tries to explain to the railways and local officials that the announcements are too loud, too frequent and too irritating. He says there have been some victories. The number of announcements has been cut in half in some locations. But Professor Yoshida laments that, in most cases, the group's requests to bureaucrats and company officials fall on deaf ears.

Perhaps the quiet campaigners need to make a little more noise for their message to be really heard.