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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:05 10/24/2007
Commentary (October 18, 2007)

Why Amplified Sound is a Problem for Japan

Daniel Dolan (Professor, Tohoku University)

Recent news of a fountain in a park being turned off by city officials in Tokyo due to noise complaints by a few local residents has created quite a bit of controversy. The source of the offending noise? Local children playing in the fountain during hot summer days. According to the Yomiuri newspaper, after the fountain was shut off 92 opinions on the matter were phoned or faxed to Tokyo city offices with 86 of these in support of the children (I hereby add my vote in favor of playing children, on the grounds that children must play and city parks seem to be legitimate places for both children and playing).

If only the admirable civic activism demonstrated in this case could be directed toward the use of amplified sound in public places in Japan, which I argue is a much greater threat not only to the physical and emotional health of citizens subject to such noise, but also to a democratic balance between free speech and the right to privacy from unwanted noise. Why is it that residents would show such keen interest in a single case of noisy children playing in a park but yet apparently fail to recognize the unrelenting menace of loudspeaker-mounted vehicles patrolling city streets across the country blaring out pachinko parlor advertisements, political extremist propaganda and election candidate names?

Defenders of free speech will line up to argue that Japan is a democracy, and therefore citizens, lawmakers, and police should support the rights of individuals or groups to say whatever they want to say in public. I fully support free speech as a fundamental right of citizens of democratic nations, but I strongly believe that citizens should push back as soon as public free speech expression unnecessarily impinges on individual privacy rights. By this measure, there is a lot of pushing back to do in Japan.

But at what point does free speech expression in public unnecessarily violate individual privacy rights? And why does any of this matter?

The first question has been addressed in both U.S. and Japan Supreme Court cases, and the second question has been clarified by both legal decisions and a large body of scientific research. (Readers interested in a more complete treatment of amplified sound in public places in Japan can see my essay, including audiovisual examples, in the online Journal of International Communication, scheduled for publication in November or December 2007).

The key principle of constitutional law invoked by Supreme Courts when determining whether free speech expression is unnecessarily intrusive lies in Public Forum Doctrine and associated time, place and manner restrictions. Generally, Courts have ruled that restrictions on amplified sound in public places are legitimate when such restrictions are put in place without reference to the content of the regulated speech, are narrowly tailored to serve a significant governmental interest, and leave open ample alternative channels for communication of the information. In simpler terms, use of amplified sound in public places is usually restricted to certain areas, volumes and time of day in cases where similar communication goals can be accomplished without unreasonable hardship by non-amplified means.

As I explain in my Journal essay, an individual walking through a shopping district in a city in Japan can elect to receive or not receive written material from political group members standing on a street corner, and citizens easily can choose to listen to or not listen to television or radio advertisements for products. Pedestrians can even give wide space to individuals expressing themselves in public with nothing more than the power and range of the unaided human voice, thereby reducing such sound to what most people would consider a tolerable level. However, as several U.S. Supreme Court decisions have held, amplified sound broadcasts offer no such choice to citizens who wish to exercise their rights to travel freely (and without ear protection) in public places, but who happen to be within hearing range of these broadcasts. This is even more true when the source of amplified sound is a moving vehicle.

Beyond questions of constitutional balance, the use of amplified sound in public places has direct, negative impact on human health. According to a 2001 study and resulting guidelines issued by the World Health Organization, negative health effects caused by excessive noise include noise-induced hearing impairment, cardiovascular stress, various mental health problems, and general annoyance exhibited by symptoms including anxiety, withdrawal, depression, anger and exhaustion.

Citizens of Japan, ask yourselves: is it really so noble to stoically endure intrusively amplified sound in public places and in neighborhoods with sighs of "it cannot be helped"? Consider the fact that Japan stands alone among developed countries in its severe restrictions on television and Internet campaign activities by electoral candidates, and in fact gives financial support to candidates to cover costs of loudspeaker vehicle use during specified campaign periods. This leaves candidates with few options aside from bullying potential voters with repetitious, amplified reminders of the candidates' names and perhaps mention of vague platform promises. In cities in the United States and most if not all countries in Europe you will not easily find individuals armed with loudspeakers assaulting pedestrians with commercial or political announcements, or political groups that disregard local laws by parking loudspeaker vehicles at city intersections while blasting political beliefs at unrestricted volumes. This is not to suggest that Japan should model itself after other countries, but rather to point out that with regard to use of amplified sound in public places, other democracies seem to have developed healthier balances between the competing rights of free speech and personal privacy.

Copyright © Japanese Institute of Global Communications