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Japanese Whistle to Make Noise at Olympics - 2004-07-19

The coming Summer Olympic Games in Athens will have a distinctive Japanese sound at many competitions. That is because a whistle from Japan will be heard frequently.

Some Japanese whistles have been gaining volume recently in the world of sports. They are the creation of 73-year-old Kazuhiro Noda who runs a small factory known as "The Noda Voice of the Crane Company."

Mr. Noda says the cork balls in inferior whistles crack after exposure to saliva. But Mr. Noda uses a special waterproof coating on the balls, giving them a perfectly smooth surface.

And instead of copper or nickel, his best whistles are either pure chrome or gold plated.

He demonstrates the difference, obvious even to the untrained ear, as he first blows the whistle the French national police previously used and the one he makes for them now.

He says he has perfected the whistle after making so many of them - 15 million at last count and that was nearly a decade ago.

Mr. Noda criticizes his European competitors, saying despite 100 years of whistle making, they got complacent and their quality deteriorated.

The Noda family began exporting cheap harmonicas to North America in 1919, then spent decades making small wind instruments, such as miniature accordions and toy bugles.

During World War II, when he and his father made parts for Morse code keys for the Japanese military, their small factory was firebombed and rebuilt three times after American bombs hit - all within two-and-a-half months.

Immediately after the war the Americans came looking for Mr. Noda's father. They wanted him to start making harmonicas again, but there were no raw materials. So the instruments were made using tin from empty beer cans supplied by thirsty U.S. soldiers.

A New York merchant in the late 1960's suggested the Noda family try copying English whistles at a time when the British pound was high and the Japanese yen very cheap.

Not only did the Japanese product gain a reputation for being less expensive, it sounded better.

Japanese soccer referee Masayoshi Okada says the first time he heard a Noda whistle seven years ago, he could hear the difference right away.

"I used first time Acme from England and second, Balilla from Italy. And third one, Fox 40 from Canada. And last one, Mr. Noda's whistle. I like Noda's whistle," he concluded.

Mr. Okada says Noda's cork ball gives referees better control of the sound, an important feature in international competitions where the officials and players do not speak a common language.

At the 1998 World Cup in France, Mr. Okada gave every referee a new Noda creation with a larger mouthpiece - perfect for big stadiums because it can be heard over the crowds.

"I gave all referees, 67 referees, for souvenirs," he said. "They were surprised because they were very beautiful whistles, silver and gold."

Mr. Okada says some of those officials will have Noda whistles between their lips during the Summer Olympics.

Noda whistles were used at the Winter Olympics in Nagano in 1998 and Salt Lake City in 2002, and at the summer games four years ago in Sydney.

Noda whistles are quite expensive, retailing for between $30 and $80 compared with others selling for as little as $10.

The cost does not matter to devotees in more than 50 countries where they are used not only in sports, but by police and the military.

The future of the Noda whistle is in doubt. Mr. Noda laments fierce competition from Taiwanese copycats, but the biggest threat is closer to home. None of Mr. Noda's three sons is interested in taking the family business into the third generation.