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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:31 03/09/2007
Debate: Commentary (August 26, 2002)

Loudspeaker Use in Japan: Free Speech Out of Balance

Daniel Dolan (Director, Global Communication Strategy, Weber Shandwick Japan)

I support an individual's right to free speech—or more broadly freedom of expression—in any society. Yet as with all things social, individual rights come with responsibilities to the communities that support and nurture individuals. In Japan I believe that this balance between free speech and public responsibility has tilted far too much toward free speech. Consider for example the use of loudspeakers in public places in Japan. In this essay I describe the problem and suggest a solution.

The most noticeable use of loudspeakers in public are by members of certain "special interest groups" in Tokyo that parade the streets blasting political messages and martial music at deafening volumes. These vehicles are huge fortresses on wheels, often with dutiful police escorts in front and rear and allegedly funded by sympathetic factions within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (but that is the subject for another essay). Sometimes these trucks just park illegally at busy intersections or crawl slowly past embassies, graciously sharing their opinions with thousands of their fellow citizens.

Merchants use loudspeakers too. In Tokyo, visit Shibuya any day of the week and be assaulted by loudspeaker announcements by employees standing in front of all kinds of shops and businesses, particularly those near the crowded Hachiko intersection in front of JR Shibuya station.

Then there are relatively quieter, small-town versions of loudspeaker fun, usually using taped messages. The truck loaded with roasted sweet potato passes by my home near the ocean once or twice a week, informing residents over loudspeakers that the potatoes are hot and tasty. Then there is the truck from which long bamboo poles for hanging laundry outside are sold. Loudspeakers proclaim that these poles are much cheaper than those found in department stores, and just as sturdy. Have any rusting motorcycles? The recycling truck announces on Saturday mornings that you finally can evict yours from your garden.

Perhaps some might argue that if Japanese citizens do not consider the use of loudspeakers in public to be a nuisance, then there is no sense in complaining (particularly by a non-Japanese). My sense from talking with Japanese friends and colleagues about the use of loudspeakers in public is that most people seem resigned to but not particularly pleased with the practice. Their responses suggest a feeling of helplessness, together with fear of the potential consequences of publicly objecting to "free speech," particularly that associated with extremist groups' activities.

Lax Laws, No Enforcement

Are there no laws in Japan against such use of loudspeakers in public? Yes, but they seem to differ across prefectures and are written so vaguely that enforcement would be nearly impossible. Article 28 of Japan's national Noise Control Law states in the published English translation that "with respect to the control of noise ... relating to broadcast using a loud speaker, the local public entity must, if it recognizes it necessary to preserve the living environment of inhabitants, take necessary measures ... ". The text offers no insight into what constitutes a preserved "living environment", nor what "necessary measures" might be possible or appropriate.

Japan's Minor Offense Law also takes a swipe at noise, proclaiming in Article 1 that "detention" or "a minor fine" will be levied against "any person who has, in defying the public service personnel, disturbed the tranquility and caused annoyance to the neighborhood by making unusually loud noises with the human voice, musical instruments, radio, etc." This description does not include loudspeakers and does not define "unusually loud noises", so it is unclear how the law might be enforced in such cases.

The only other noise restrictions I can identify in Japan's laws apparently are related to the National Election Law, because they prohibit the use of loudspeakers for campaigning between the hours of 8 p.m. and 8 a.m., and caution these trucks not to disturb schools, hospitals, or nursing homes any time.

Socially Responsible Free Speech

The notion of "free speech" as a codified right in Japan arrived formally in a way similar to the announcement of "four freedoms" laid out in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights to the U.S. Constitution, ratified on December 15, 1791. Penned during the American occupation of Japan (1945-1952), Article 21 of the Constitution of Japan assured Japanese citizens that "Freedom of assembly and association as well as speech, press and all other forms of expression are guaranteed. 2) No censorship shall be maintained, nor shall the secrecy of any means of communication be violated." But the same document, in Article 12, cautions that "The freedoms and rights guaranteed to the people by this Constitution shall be maintained by the constant endeavor of the people, who shall refrain from any abuse of these freedoms and rights and shall always be responsible for utilizing them for the public welfare." Harvard University's Free Speech Guidelines echo this concern for a balance between free speech and communal responsibility, pointing out that although freedom of expression is a supreme principle of the university, "there are obligations of civility and respect for others that underlie rational discourse".

Proposal: Ban All Loudspeakers

If we assume that the majority of Japanese citizens would prefer not to have to endure the present situation, I propose that the use of loudspeakers in public be banned completely. This would include all uses (hand-held, vehicle-mounted, etc.) by all individuals or groups, with the exception of judicious and reasonable use by public safety officials such as police, medics and firefighters. Laws would need to be revised—requiring a great deal of pressure by citizen groups and the will to act by lawmakers--and enforced with penalties sufficient to discourage offenses. In the case of vehicular loudspeaker use there might be an escalating series of penalties for repeat offenders, from fines to temporary loss of driving licenses to permanent loss of the vehicle in question.

If a total ban seems drastic, Beverly Hills, California, offers a more moderate model based on restricted use of loudspeakers. According to the regulation:

(a) The use or operation of sound amplifying equipment shall be prohibited between the hours from 6:00 p.m. to 10:00 a.m. of the next succeeding day;
(b) No sound emanating from sound amplifying equipment shall exceed fifteen (15) dbA above the ambient as measured at any property line; and
(c) The volume of sound shall be so controlled that it will not be substantially and unreasonably loud, raucous, jarring, disturbing, or a nuisance to reasonable persons of normal sensitiveness within the area of audibility.

Note that the Beverly Hills law includes a critical and measurable volume restriction component apparently missing from Japan's sound control laws.

A key thesis of my argument is that the banning of loudspeakers in Japan's public places would not mean restrictions on the content of speech or the places in which speech can occur. Let anybody with a message they hope to share shout from the street corners, bellow from the rooftops, scream in the parks. Interested audiences can listen if they choose to, or simply distance themselves from the speakers much more easily than is possible at present.

That is the fundamental tenet of responsible freedom of speech: Say what you will, but hold no captives.

Copyright © Japanese Institute of Global Communications