It is 21 years since Tomoyo Hanabusa had some peace and quiet in her tiny wooden home in this thriving industrial city about 50 miles west of Tokyo.
Twenty feet from her living room stands a massive concrete trestle that since 1964 has carried Shinkansen, Japan's famous "bullet trains," past at speeds of up to 120 miles per hour. They begin at 6:45 a.m. and run until a few minutes after 11 p.m., more than 300 of them every day.
"When I'm downstairs in the kitchen, it's like getting hit by an earthquake every five minutes," complains Hanabusa. Flowerpots shake and conversation stops. In seven or eight seconds, another blue and white train has hurtled down the elevated line and out of sight, and things quiet down instantly, for a few minutes at least.
Hanabusa is a rare breed in Japan. She is angry about noise and fighting back. Ten years ago, she joined with several hundred of her neighbors to sue the bullet trains' operator, the state-owned Japanese National Railways. Most of them won about $4,000 each in damages, but they are now appealing the court's refusal to force the trains to slow down as they pass through their neighborhood.
Most Japanese seem either to accept or not notice the cacophony in the air in a city like Nagoya. Says Norio Taniwaki, a noise complaint specialist with the Tokyo city government, "The Japanese are forgiving when it comes to noise."
Much of the noise is inevitable, the result of 120 million people, 46 million motor vehicles and the non-communist world's second-largest economy competing for space in an area the size of Montana.
By some accounts, the Japanese came unconsciously to crave noise after World War II, associating it with construction, assembly lines and other signs that the devastation left by the war was being put behind them.
Indeed, there is a case to be made that what Japanese society today fears is silence. Certainly, it has put modern science to work filling the small pockets of silence that can still be found around the cities and towns.
Rare is the Japanese street today that has no loudspeaker. Tiny ones dole out schedule information at bus stops, make recorded greetings to customers at supermarket doors and tell pedestrians it is now all right to cross the street but please be careful.
Bigger loudspeakers tower over Japanese parks, sounding chimes at 5 p.m. to signal children that it is time to go home. Loudspeakers on school grounds announce the opening of the gates in the morning, the start of a daily student assembly and change of classes.
The Asahi Shimbun daily newspaper recently found that the government of Katsuta City north of Tokyo operated 88 loudspeaker towers that kept the local populace up to date on such subjects as animal husbandry, the start of police recruitment and personal comportment. "Be proud of your work and do it happily," said one message.
Collectors of wastepaper, who once sang to advertise their presence as they walked the streets, today switch on open-loop taped announcements. There are an estimated 700 of the trucks plying the streets of Kyoto.
No labor union march or election campaign rally is complete without cheer-leading belted out from sound trucks. Rightist organizations frequently drive their trucks up to the Tokyo headquarters of the left-leaning Japan Teachers Federation and give them a mega-decibel broadside of rhetoric.
Even temples and shrines are not immune. Several years ago, a Tokyo man wrote to the Japan Times to complain that loudspeakers at a famous Zen garden had informed him that "this garden symbolizes the essence of quietness."
Another great enemy of silence in Japan is the karaoke machine, a tape player that provides background music for songs, with the user providing the vocals, which the machine amplifies.
Introduced 10 years ago, karaoke, which translates as "empty orchestra," has dug in as an established entertainment form. In fiscal 1983, 882 Tokyo drinking establishments and countless homes had it. That same year, the police got 10,429 complaints about karaoke. In fact, about 20 percent of the 21,800 formal noise investigations conducted by the authorities in Japan in 1983 were karaoke-related.
Yoshii Takagi of Tokyo's Kita ward turned into a citizen activist after a snack shop 10 feet from her apartment installed one of the machines in 1978. "Sometimes the music ran until 4 a.m.," she recalls. "I couldn't sleep." She finally forced a lowering of the noise after dozens of trips to the police and city government and health offices.
Tokyo recently enacted a law that sets specifics limits on the hours and volume levels permissible for karaoke playing.
Every now and then, frustration with noise leads a normally strait-laced member of society into crime.
In 1974, a man murdered a neighbor and her two daughters after he became enraged over the girls' piano-practicing. More recently, a motorcyclist was killed in Tokyo after he was swept off his bike by a cord strung between two trees. The culprit was not caught, but police believe it was someone angry over motorcycle gangs using the street for joy riding.
The government officially recognizes that Japan has a noise problem, and for years has had a set of fairly stringent national laws in force, including ones for cars and factories. They were enacted as part of a national backlash, against all kinds of pollution, that swept Japan in the early 1970s following the Minamata City mercury poisonings and other celebrated cases of pollution.
The government has spent millions of dollars erecting sound barriers along highways and fitting houses along the bullet train lines, Hanabusa's included, and near airports with double windows and other noise control devices. Those who live next to ordinary railroads, however, receive no government assistance. "We'd have to pay half the houses in Japan," says Tokyo's noise complaint specialist, Taniwaki.
The government appears to have made important progress against some types of industrial noise. Complaints have been declining for years. Officials are trying to relocate night landing practice by U.S. jets, following long-standing complaints and legal action from people living around the Atsugi air base near Tokyo.
But other fields need work. A recent government survey, for instance, found that only two of 17 airports studied were meeting aviation noise standards set in 1973.
The government sometimes fails to move against citizen noisemakers on the grounds that it might violate the public interest. For instance, reining in the sound trucks of Tokyo could be considered a curtailment of free speech, the police said.
Likewise, the court that rejected the demand by Hanabusa and her fellow plaintiffs held that slowing the trains for them would mean slowing the trains for 50 other neighborhoods along the lines. That, it argued, would disrupt Japan's transportation network.