Drawing on Karin Bijsterveld’s triple definition of noise as ownership, political responsibility, and causal responsibility, this article traces how modern Japan problematized noise, and how noise represented both the aspirational discourse of Western civilization and the experiential nuisance accompanying rapid changes in living conditions in 1920s Japan. Primarily based on newspaper archives, the analysis will approach the problematic of noise as it was manifested in different ways in the public and private realms. In the public realm, the mid-1920s marked a turning point due to the reconstruction work after the Great Kantô Earthquake (1923) and the spread of the use of radios, phonographs, and loudspeakers. Within a few years, public opinion against noise had been formed by a coalition of journalists, police, the judiciary, engineers, academics, and municipal officials. This section will also address the legal regulation of noise and its failure; because public opinion was “owned” by middle-class (sub)urbanites, factory noises in downtown areas were hardly included in noise abatement discourse. Around 1930, the sounds of radios became a social problem, but the police and the courts hesitated to intervene in a “private” conflict, partly because they valued radio as a tool for encouraging nationalist mobilization and transmitting announcements from above. In sum, this article investigates the diverse contexts in which noise was perceived and interpreted as such, as noise became an integral part of modern life in early 20th-century Japan.

Japan’s first successful talkie film, The Neighbor’s Wife and Mine (Madamu to Nyôbô, 1931, dir. Heinosuke Gosho) was originally titled Noise of the Neighbors (Tonari no Zatsuon). It is curious why the production team initially chose this title for their first talkie. Its storyline is simple: a playwright, annoyed by the voice of a jazz singer from the neighboring house, decides to make angry protests against her and her band. Upon encountering them, however, he is forcefully pulled by the singer to her salon and he joins in the party, dancing with her. His wife turns out to be jealous of her, but her husband, stimulated by the jazz music, succeeds in quickly completing his mission to finish writing a script. The film’s sound played a key role in impressing viewers with a new audio-plus-visual experience. The narrative cue marking the playwright’s success is the sudden transformation of bothersome noise into cheerful music, which corresponds to the position of listening/hearing and the relationship of the listener/hearer to the sound-makers. Such a sound-centered narrative would not be possible without this new audiovisual technique, although the production team chose the final title, preferring to highlight the tension between the two women rather than using the more allusive original title.

The first title, Noise of the Neighbors, suggests not only a conceptual association of jazz with noise, but also the rising public attention concerning the disturbing sounds of neighbors. It was then recognized as a new social problem. Noise was perceived both as a quasi-synonym for jazz—a symbol for the age—and as a public nuisance in the years when Japan was experiencing a “sonic shift.” Noise was both positive (vital) and negative (uncomfortable). This article will first examine the increase in the decibel level of metropolitan life due to heavy traffic, crowded living conditions, and the use of electric devices. Second, I will look at how noise came to be recognized as such by middle-class residents and how noise was problematized through a collaboration between journalists, municipal officials, and academics. Third, I will discuss the personal aspect of noise problems by questioning how the pervasiveness of unwanted sound affected the public/private division in everyday life. I chose this time period because it is framed by two significant events: 1923 was the year of the Great Kantô Earthquake, and 1937 marked the promulgation of the Loud Sound Regulations. These two events are important in a cultural history of “noise-scape” in industrializing Japan.

“Noise-scape” is a subcategory of soundscape that is concerned with “noise.” Among several definitions of “soundscape,” Emily Thompson’s is the simplest and the most cogent: it is a “physical environment and a way of perceiving that environment: it is both a world and a culture constructed to make sense of that world.”1 The physical aspects consist of the “material objects that create, and sometimes destroy, those sounds.” The cultural aspects “incorporate scientific and aesthetic ways of listening, a listener’s relationship to their environment, and the social circumstances that dictate who gets to hear what.”2 This article will deal with these material and cultural aspects of noise in a specific place and period. The noise discussed below is neither carnivalesque (Jacques Attali) nor performative (Paul Hegarty) but psychologically and socially offensive. It is neither a sound experienced with expectant revolt nor a sound presupposing the audience group, whoever and wherever they are. It is made and perceived in the daily life of the common people.

Although similarly mechanical sounds had spread coevally in many parts of the world, public consensus and discourse about noise, its social definition, and its technical and legal resolution were not the same, given the different local conditions and situations concerning the process of recognizing and sanctioning noise. I agree with Emily Thompson’s remark in her pioneering work, The Soundscape of Modernity: “[M]odernity was built from the ground up. It was constructed by the actions and through the experiences of ordinary individuals as they struggled to make sense of their world.”3 In the next sections, I present quotes from contemporary newspapers that express the annoying experiences of ordinary individuals in a straightforward manner. Each individual might not self-identify him- or herself as an agent in building modernity, but as an incongruous and contingent collective they committed themselves to form and transform the modern soundscape of their world. As the sound (noise) itself is ephemeral, its recipients’ group is fluid. They are not “audience” but a collective that happens to be too close to the sound emitters no matter what they are. My examples quoted below may seem too episodic to theorize noise as an overall social issue, but they may also show as a mosaic-like whole the contingent reactions to certain types of sound in certain periods and settings by groups from different backgrounds. I argue against the over-politicization of noise that tends to reduce the disparate occurrences in the conflict and power balance among the interested groups (I do not say that noisiness is apolitical). Instead, I will present how the aural discomfort was conceptualized and interpreted by the heterogeneous individuals and groups. As elsewhere, the noise abatement campaign in 1930s Japan did not always result in pragmatic solutions but made the unnoticed or unwanted sound audible or avoidable. More important is that the discursive platform for complaints about noise was set up in the 1930s. My aim is not to narrate a success/failure story of the campaign but to illustrate a fragment of Japan’s modern history from an aural point of view.

Although unwanted sound had been documented for decades in Japan, it was not socially problematized until the reconstruction period (1923–30) after the Great Kantô Earthquake, to the extent that public opinion called for abatement measures. Historically, noise abatement becomes public opinion only when certain social institutions (the mass media, public authorities, and academics, for example) join to form a pragmatic platform for politics and education. Karin Bijsterveld skillfully explains the process of formation of public opinion by a triple-faceted concept of ownership, political responsibility, and causal responsibility. Bijsterveld writes that ownership refers to “those groups or institutions defining the problem, whereas those in charge of actually solving the problem by intervening are the ones with political responsibility. In contrast, causal responsibility is about the explanation of phenomena.”4 Even though my approach will tend more to a people’s history of aural life than that of science and technology, as Bijsterveld’s, I utilize her ideas to reflect on who identifies the noise as a problem, who intervenes in solving the problem, and what issues noise causes (or is believed to cause). She also notes that “public problems should be distinguished from private ones”;5 for example, the noise of an automobile is socially distinct from that of a neighbor’s jazz singing. The binary concept of public versus private is especially important here because it is the foundation of listeners’ defining process of environmental sound as noise.

Because of the coevality and ubiquity of noise issues around the world, much of the following discussion may sound like a refrain of an old song, or perhaps a Japanese cover version of a Tin Pan Alley song. To borrow from ethnomusicologist David Novak, these old lyrics are as follows:

[A]s noise was brought further into social consciousness, its recognition contributed to the inexorable fragmentation and privatization of urban space, through zoning, sonic surveillance, and acoustic shielding from public noise.…But although projects of noise abatement helped to establish scientific measurements of noise and legal standards of loudness, regulations typically failed or were found unenforceable. Instead, noise was increasingly characterized as an inevitable byproduct of technological progress.6

This article will examine the rise of “social consciousness,” the “privatization of urban space,” and “sonic surveillance,” as outlined in Novak’s composition. By uncovering noise issues during this historically crucial period, I will elucidate the flexible and fluxional nature of noise as it reverberated in the rapidly industrializing society of Japan and especially Tokyo.

In the geopolitical history of Tokyo, the earthquake took place one year after the city had expanded by incorporating the neighboring semi-agricultural countryside. Japan’s economic status was uplifted after the end of World War I, and the nation (and especially Tokyoites) were convinced that they had nearly “caught up with” a war-devastated Europe. To regain pride in both their world-ranking metropolis as much as in the city’s position in the Japanese economy, the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, together with corporate conglomerates and foreign capital, invested heavily in Tokyo’s civic works and transportation system, among others. Though centralization had characterized the building of the nation-state since the Meiji Restoration in 1868, it was rapidly reinforced after the 1923 earthquake. This political and financial shift in Tokyo also affected the nation’s overall demography as well as the citizenry’s living conditions, as discussed below.

The Great Kantô Earthquake of September 1, 1923, killed over 100,000 people, destroyed over 100,000 houses, and burned over 210,000 houses; 2 million people in the Kantô area (Tokyo and its neighboring prefectures) were affected by the disaster in one way or another. The calamity marked a dividing line in Japan’s musical history, signaling the emergence of a jazz boom, the start of new types of popular folk songs, the investment of major foreign labels in the phonograph industry (Victor, Columbia, and Gramophone), and so on. It also initiated a new chapter in metropolitan noise history. Reconstruction work generated huge mechanical noise everywhere in the capital. Major public works at this time included the construction of Japan’s first subway (1927) and the restoration of the first multistory buildings in the business districts. Motorization was accelerated by the establishment of Japan General Motors (1927) and Japan Ford (1928). Tokyo’s ongoing cacophony is best visualized by a collage titled “The Jazz-Band of Great Tokyo” in the magazine Asahigraph (November 2, 1927), composed of photos of 28 new and old sound sources arranged randomly; at the center is a conductor waving a baton as if in front of an orchestra.

In the midst of the reconstruction work of “great Tokyo,” noise was considered lethal for a sick old woman from the countryside. When she fainted on the street and died, supposedly astonished by unbearable noise, the Tokyo Nichinichi Shimbun called the case “murder by noise” (September 30, 1925). The article is headlined “The Urban Noise”:

The thundering noise is the metropolis’ gasp for ceaseless life, as well as its vital food for growth. Noise flows in its veins. We cannot do anything against this noisy life. Our only remedy for happiness would be to become “insensitive” to lethal noise. Immersed ourselves in the “metropolis’ gasp,” we must unconsciously neglect the noise we habitually perceive.

Figure 1.

“The Jazz-Band of Great Tokyo.” Asahigraph, November 2, 1927.

Figure 1.

“The Jazz-Band of Great Tokyo.” Asahigraph, November 2, 1927.

Journalists often praised rapid civil work under the haunting phrase “the hammer sound of reconstruction,” with obvious connotations of virility and vitality, but this “hammer sound” might have been too painful for the old woman. The rhetoric underlying her death is a longstanding cultural distinction between the metropolis and the countryside and a conviction that the noise is a necessary byproduct of the future prosperity of the capital. In an optimistic view of “newborn Tokyo,” noise was regarded as the cost of emulating world-class cities such as New York and London; such confidence in Tokyo was found in many overseas travelogues during the 1920s and 1930s. The cynicism of this article lies in the opposition to the phrase usually repeated in the enlightenment text: as one was “sharpening sensibility,” one also had to learn to ignore noise to become “deaf” (in R. Murray Schafer’s terms). Bijsterveld emphasizes the signification of “staging and drama of public problems” in the “discourse coalition.”7 Phrases such as “murder by noise” are just some of the examples of dramatization, and we will see many more.

As elsewhere, Japan underwent drastic shifts in its aural environments in the 1920s with the importation of new electric devices such as the public loudspeaker (1923), the radio (1925), the electric phonograph player (1926), and sounded film (1929). The introduction of these devices was as decisive for new sonic environments as the sounds that accompanied public works and the expansion of traffic in cities. New inventions not only reproduced the “audible past” in a different time and space but also reduced the “audible distance” connecting here and there.

Electric amplification was pivotal in the change in soundscape in the twenties, as it was responsible for the augmentation of decibels in everyday life. When set in the public space, the loudspeaker was either praised as a large-scale means to transmit a message to a huge audience community, or blamed as a bother to recipients’ ears by its unintended loudness. The first full-page advertisement of the Magnavox magnet-coil loudspeaker (invented in 1915) appeared in the magazine Nittô Times, published by the Nittô Record Co. (Osaka) in January 1923. According to the ad, this device could magnify sound 200 times, so that the human voice could reach over 550 meters. The text also states the speaker had a clear bass tone, which allowed for the machine to be substituted for a brass band in huge gatherings as well as to be used for variety shows in large places. Magnavox represented the arrival of an “electronic revolution” in Japan, followed within a few years by the radio and record player and many other consumer electronics.

The first eloquent impression of the electric loudspeaker was written by journalist/novelist Kyûsaku Yumeno. Upon arriving at Shinagawa Station (one of Tokyo’s major railway stations) after his long trip from Fukuoka on September 1, 1924, exactly one year after the earthquake, he was horrified by the “extraordinarily scratchy call” of prerecorded announcements.8 The overwhelming mechanical voice made him imagine a science fiction-like world controlled by robots and machines. When he arrived at the central Tokyo Station, he was perplexed by the sonic flood: “Various noises, roarings, cries, and rumblings were whirling and swirling around me. It may be more amplified and intensified than before the earthquake. I was totally at a loss for a while.”9 Yumeno’s description of the electrified voice was a prelude to his long essay, which attacked the hypocrisy, the corruption, and the worsening social situation of the capital under reconstruction.

In its early years, the loudspeaker was not always resented, but welcomed as a “democratic” tool. For example, the “biggest speaker in Japan,” set outside Tokyo’s largest baseball stadium, had a monster horn 3 meters long with a 130 centimeter caliber, and it could amplify sound sources 400 or 500 times (October 10, 1929, Miyako Shimbun). The loud reverberating radio broadcast of the game, as the article extolls, reached the ears of 10,000 listeners who had been unfortunate enough not to gain entry into the stadium. Therefore, it suggests, the broadcast made it possible for underpaid laborers as well as latecomers to enjoy the game, annihilating class differences.

Figure 2.

Magnavox advertisement. Nittô Times, January 1923.

Figure 2.

Magnavox advertisement. Nittô Times, January 1923.

Well-known acoustic scientist and musicologist Shôhei Tanaka (who had received a doctoral degree under Hermann von Helmholtz in Berlin) wrote in 1926 that thanks to regular radio broadcasts, he believed that amplification technology had allowed more home listeners to listen to better music than ever before.10 Broadcasts could function as a tool for public musical enlightenment. Tanaka, who specialized in the acoustical analysis of traditional instruments, expected that minor genres—such as shamisen-accompanied vocals designed for small rooms—could become respectably popular genres with the aid of loudspeakers, overcoming constant criticism regarding the music’s “feeble sound” by audiences who preferred to follow Western music. Through amplification, he speculated, Japanese music could become equal to Western genres, in terms of volume and sufficient loudness that could transform a subtle music born out of a small tatami chamber into a widely recognized art. The loudspeakers, according to Tanaka, would likely improve Japanese traditional music’s socio-aesthetic status.

Figure 3.

“Japan’s largest loudspeaker.” Miyako Shimbun, October 10, 1929.

Figure 3.

“Japan’s largest loudspeaker.” Miyako Shimbun, October 10, 1929.

One of the most famous structures in Tokyo’s modernist city plan, the Marunouchi building (nicknamed Marubiru), was built in front of Tokyo Station in February 1923 and restored in July 1926. In 1929, it was equipped with gigantic speakers that were used for the sirens at the noon and 5 p.m. announcements, as noted in the Tokyo Asahi Shimbun: “The modern sound of enormous roaring was spread along the tall buildings” (December 20, 1929). The word roaring was used in a positive sense, unlike in cases of traffic noise. The article also stated that four other speakers would be situated shortly at other city landmarks in central Tokyo (a radio station, a science museum, a botanical garden, a public park, and so on) to reinforce the punctuality of Tokyo’s daily life. The same sound devices were also installed in factories, schools, and business buildings to signal the start and close of work, and at noon. Other cities soon followed the capital. The speakers were later used to blast sirens for drills and air-raid warnings. Like the church bells in Western villages, the noon siren became a “sound-mark” (R. Murray Schafer) of Japanese life. Radio stations also aired hourly signals like clockwork. The sound regulation of everyday life became routine in the 1930s when amplified sound gradually entered (or invaded) metropolitan life.

I have pronounced 1929 as year zero of the noise abatement campaign due to the increasing number of references to the topic in a variety of newspapers and journals. “Discourse coalitions”11 among academics (hailing from the fields of physics, architecture, engineering, public health, and medical science), municipal authorities, and the press helped to mark this year as a definitive transitional period into a new sound era. In that year, noise turned into a social and public issue rather than being considered merely a private concern, or for some a nuisance with a pathological cause.

An example was an article on the front page of Tokyo Nichinichi Shimbun under the headline, “The Age of Horrifying Noise: Jazz City New York / Fear of Nervous Breakdown within Half a Year” (October 24, 1929). The article featured an eye-catching photo of Manhattan by night. The contents highlighted the launch of the New York Noise Abatement Committee on October 21, only three days earlier, with its five principles: legislative regulation, the scientific classification of noise, research on noise’s physiological impact on humans, worldwide scientific investigation of noise, and research on soundproofed architecture. The reporter stated: “If noise is one of today’s metropolitan conditions, it is easy to imagine that New York, one of the largest cities around the world, is a city of noise. Compared to the noise of New York, that of Tokyo and Osaka is as low as that of the countryside.”12 The level of noise, the article continues, was indicative of civilization-as-industrialization: the noisier the city was, the more civilized and industrialized it was. Noise, in this context, was affirmed as a bothersome yet dynamic force for urban prosperity. Such a double-edged view coincided with the quintessential definition of jazz as a mixture of civilization and barbarism, and jazz was by far a symbol for New York for Japanese readers. As jazz makes noise, noise makes jazz. Noise represented a brutal but fortunate facet of Manhattan, to which many Western-minded readers aspired. Tokyo and Osaka, the article implies, should be noisier if they wanted to become the New York of Japan. It concluded that the Noise Abatement Committee was founded because New Yorkers “wanted quietness more than money.” Here, our attention should be drawn to the contrast between the “jazziest” city and the noisiest one, for noise, as a metaphor, is fused with the perception of jazz as a lifestyle and an aesthetic.

In the same year, the Tokyo municipal government set up the Investigation Committee of Electric Train Acoustics (put in place in January 1930) to research noise reduction. Predictably, the tramcar, later nicknamed “the shrieking demon,” became the first object of noise abatement.13 In 1930, one executive of the Electric Bureau of Tokyo was dispatched to Europe and the United States in order to “investigate the institutions for noise reduction” (July 30, 1930, Tokyo Asahi Shimbun). It was reported under the headline, “Most of Domestic Disputes Are Caused by Urban Noise.” The article claimed that the birthrate of rats in noisy rooms was lower than the birthrate in quiet ones, and that the same ratio could be applicable to human beings. Noise would not only deafen human hearing function but could also damage females’ reproductive bodies as well as the harmonious family (these examples were drawn from American sources in the article). Following this “discovery” that noise lowered the birthrate of rats, another headline read, “City Inhabitants Will Be Vanished in the Third Generation? Babies Could Be Born Feeble or Handicapped” (January 30, 1931, Yomiuri Shimbun); the article suggested that noise could cause death, family quarrels, divorce, infertility, and other terrible consequences. The reporters’ technological determinism and the rhetorical dramatization were obvious as they adapted studies to configure with journalistic discourse. Their call for an intervention by public authorities was parallel to the growing consciousness of noise as an evil outcome of modern civilization.14

Behind the rising journalistic attention to noise was academic commitment. There were principally two disciplines involved: architectural acoustics and the acoustics branch of physics. Takeo Satô at Waseda University was the leading figure of the former field. Satô specialized in the acoustics of theater and other public architectures. In 1929, he measured sound using the Barkhausen Audiometer (Siemens Co.) and 2-A and 3-A Audio Meters (Western Electric) in and around large buildings and at a dozen of points of heavy traffic.15 These cutting-edge devices were immediately available for Japanese engineers’ use. Satô also measured the temporal change of loudness at one specific point for 24 hours. He published noise audiograms (a visualization by frequency and decibel) in engineering journals.16 He demonstrated that the peaks and averages of the decibels recorded in Tokyo were actually not different from those in New York. His group’s street survey results were covered by Japanese newspapers and news reels. In one report, a person was pictured holding a telephone-like receiver, while another was shown looking closely at the meter connected with the line. Such scientific-looking illustrations captivated curious passersby and the readership, so much so that even Satô himself called it “theater-like-acting” (August 17 and October 11, 1930, Tokyo Asahi Shimbun). Crowds that surrounded the sound measurement team’s work were also reported in the following years. These images constituted a kind of “staging” for common people to understand how the noise measurement worked and how the street noise would be scientifically lowered in the future.

The New York Noise Abatement Committee’s 1929 report was the most cited reference in Japanese anti-noise discourse. Its questionnaire concerning the most uncomfortable noises had over 10,000 respondents and showed the percentage of the sort of noise source for the respondents.17 According to Satô, however, the results “show us only statistically the names and kinds of the noise sources. It does not deal with the loudness and influence of each noise for the respondents.”18 His interests lay in “the strength of physical stimuli of noise, the frequency of noise, and the many psychological factors impossible to explain.”19 He prioritized the physically measurable (i.e., the objective or quantitative) aspects of noise but never touched on the psychological (i.e., the subjective or qualitative) aspects. Noise was mainly measured in central Tokyo (especially along tramcar lines). Factories were not included, nor were schools, stations, or airports (more on this below).

Figure 4.

The decibel measurement at Ginza, Tokyo, by Takeo Satô’s group. Tokyo Asahi Shimbun, August 17, 1930.

Figure 4.

The decibel measurement at Ginza, Tokyo, by Takeo Satô’s group. Tokyo Asahi Shimbun, August 17, 1930.

The other academic field committed to noise problem research was the acoustics branch of physics. Its top expert, Jûichi Obata (of the Institute of Aircraft Engineering, Imperial University of Tokyo) started writing on noise for general readership around 1930. An expert in the acoustics of Japanese language (such as pronunciation and phonetics) and Japanese musical instruments (focusing on pitch and performance techniques), he became a public figure through his articles and radio programs. In 1930, he mentioned four basic measures necessary for noise abatement: (1) research for the cause of noise and the measurement of loudness; (2) research of physiological influence of noise; (3) legal regulation of noise; and (4) improvement of architecture.20 As for the first measure, Obata felt he understood the character of a sound source using an audiometer, but he thought further research should clarify noise phenomena as a whole. Regarding the second measure, he criticized industrial psychologist Donald Laird’s comparative experiment carried out in the 1920s on the efficiency of typists in noiseless versus noisy spaces21 as inapplicable to Japan (in part because the typewriter was not common in Japanese businesses), while anticipating alternative experimental psychology. As for noise regulation, Obata believed legal control to be the most feasible measure, and he felt the unnecessary use of car horns needed regulation. He could not apply any solution related to architecture based on previous research on Western housing because these buildings were totally distinct from Japanese structures.

In 1936, Obata—together with Ryûzaburo Taguchi (of the National Institute for Science and Chemistry) and Kotoji Satta (of the physiology department, Tokyo Imperial University)—founded the Acoustical Society of Japan. It was modeled after the Acoustical Society of America (founded in 1928; the first official meeting was in 1929), and both explored the academic space between purely experimental science and pragmatic engineering, which was called “new acoustics.”22 The inauguration ceremony was accompanied by a lecture on urban noise by engineer Minoru Takada of the Tokyo Municipal Institute of Electrical Studies, who in 1937 would publish the first book in Japanese on noise reduction titled Noise Prevention.23 The news headline reporting the society’s founding was “Be Quiet, City!” (May 16, 1936, Yomiuri Shimbun). Noise was, so to speak, the most salient topic for journalists writing in acoustic disciplines, though not many society members were grounded in noise issues, according to a publication by the Nihon Onkyô Gakkaishi (Journal of the Acoustical Society of Japan) before 1945.

While quantitative measurement was mainstream in noise research, qualitative observations were marginalized in prewar Japan probably because the latter needed more solid organization and budget than the former, which was possible with a limited number of experts. Until the 1940s, the only survey concerning noise was carried out in 1935 by the Osaka Municipal Research Center for Public Hygiene in cooperation with the Osaka Rotary Club.24 This survey had been administered by the founding director of the Osaka Municipal Research Center of Public Health since 1922, Dr. Kujûrô Fujiwara, who had a doctorate in public health from Imperial University of Kyoto and was also a founding member of the Osaka Metropolitan Committee of Civic Art and of the Osaka Rotary Club.25 As an author of an article on the legal details of the New York case in a jurist magazine,26 he realized the need for organizing a comprehensive project specializing in noise abatement and including experts and bureaucrats from diverse fields. Noise was, for him, a compound and contingent object to be defined and resolved as a scientific problem as much as a social one, and its reduction presupposed close cooperation of related individuals and institutions.

Fujiwara was also a founding member of the Association of Civic Art, established in 1926 by an array of architects, urbanists, journalists, intellectuals, and administrative officials (including Minoru Takada, mentioned above). The “civic art” (translated as toshibi, literally “urban beauty”) movement itself was launched in the 1910s in Europe and North America by middle-class advocates who shared modernist values, prioritizing open air and public space. The campaign proposed a better urban landscape, including the construction of public parks, tree planting, the preservation of historic sites, and other endeavors. The movement presented a “middle-class vision of a well-ordered city.”27 In Europe it aimed at the recovery from the devastation caused by the Great War, while in Japan the new concern with urban environments mainly meant the rebirth from the destruction caused by the Great Kantô Earthquake. Their conferences were often reported in papers and journals, so much so that a middle-class readership could become conscious of the gap between an ideal and their actual environment. In the association’s proposal on “System of Civic Art” (1930), “Sound” was referred to in the last section of “Public Health” (among seven sections) and classified in four categories: traffic noise, factory noise, indoor noise, and amateur music-making.28 Despite this categorization, the bulletin Toshibi hardly offered any solutions to noise, while most of the group’s recommendations privileged visual environments. The civic art movement focused more on the planning and building of aesthetic space than the abatement of actual health issues and inconveniences such as air and sound pollution. It encouraged the common citizens to ameliorate their living conditions but did not encourage them to become involved in actions against noise itself. Following the two previous decibel measurements collected by the Osaka Municipal Research Center for Public Hygiene, Fujiwara, unsatisfied with them, stepped out for the first noise questionnaire in Japan.29

Similar to other countries, the Japanese categorization of noise was grouped with urban “public health” (a phrase substitutable for “urban hygiene” in the Japanese context), and research principally concerned smoke and stench. The subjective character of noise, which the Tokyo-based experts had unwillingly dismissed, was the main issue for the Osaka group. Following the New York model, their questionnaire interrogated the categories of noises and times the respondents heard them. There were 19,866 responses, greater than the New York sample of 11,068. The New York survey listed 26 categories of noise while the Osaka found 35. The New York survey included some categories not found in the Osaka listings, such as fire department sirens and trucks, ash and garbage collections, and newsboys’ cries, among others. Meanwhile, new categories in the Osaka project included street music performances as advertisements, live music and the sound of phonographs being played in private homes, footsteps of walkers, and so on.

The Osaka team, therefore, did not copy faithfully the New York study, but focused on local sounds/noises specific to the city. In fact, one of the specifically “local” examples was the chindon-ya; these bands had been mocked by intellectuals for their out-of-tune performances and bizarre appearance.30 Nine percent of the respondents (1,717 of 19,866 respondents) referred to these bands as one of the most annoying sound sources in the daytime. Meanwhile, the sound of phonographs playing at record shops, tea houses, or other commercial places was often criticized as not only noisy but vulgar (1,188 respondents in the daytime; 2,130 in the nighttime). The sound of footsteps was probably listed due to the architectural makeup of Japanese traditional wooden housing, with their thin walls and entrance rooms open to the street (4,304 respondents in the daytime). The report’s categories of street sounds are classified into four groups: (1) Vehicle horns and sirens; (2) loudspeakers and musical performances; (3) pedestrians, automobiles, electric cars, trains, and ships; and (4) miscellaneous.

The questionnaire also asked the respondents what the most annoying noise was. The results created a huge “noise-scape” catalogue for Osaka in 1935. The report classified annoying sound sources into six groups: (1) street noise (e.g., radio, phonograph, children’s voices, vendors’ calls, picture-story tellers, chindon-ya bands, and so on); (2) building construction and road paving; (3) factory noise; (4) domestic work (such as tofu shops, sewing machine shops); (5) vehicles (e.g., motorcycles, horse carriages, trains, milk deliveries); and (6) miscellaneous (this included Buddhist chanting, babies’ and animals’ noises, sounds of beggars and night watchmen, and noises emitted from common establishments such as cinemas, billiard halls, laundries, and public baths). On average, traffic noise and the horns used by vehicles were the most annoying for respondents (67%).31

The Osaka team also measured the decibel levels in offices in the Osaka Town Hall and asked the employees if noise disturbed their telephone communication, conversation, and/or office work. The result made it clear that the workers were most often disturbed by the noise from outside such as tramcars, tramcar horns, and automobile horns (noted in this order), and then by interior noise such as colleagues’ speech, typewriters, and telephones (in this order). The dark noise (or the “roaring” background noise) of construction sites was about 43 decibels, surpassing the admissible level of 20–30 decibels. This result, then, confirmed the unbearable working conditions at the Osaka Town Hall. The catalogue of incidental and personal nuisances also substantiated the claim that the quality of Japanese public life was deteriorating. Fujiwara had a clear idea on defining noise in the context of urban public health:

Noise prevention necessitates expertise from a very large range of fields, and all who are concerned with it should understand deeply the problem of noise prevention with passion and self-control. Without this passion, one would not have expected any great results. In this sense, we need to enlighten our citizens as much as possible. They should be informed of concrete facts arising from scientific research on noise and its harm, which covers a range of disciplines from mechanical, electric and civil engineering and physics to medical science, public health science, psychology and others. It is a most urgent task to encourage self-improvement and self-control of the people involved.32

His remarks, however, remained undiscussed in the noisy Osaka Town Hall. The municipal journal Dai Osaka (Great Osaka) published the last article concerning noise in 1938, the year that total national mobilization under the military regime was reinforced. Despite Fujiwara’s appeal, public as well as institutional interest in the noise issue declined.

On March 22, 1925, radio broadcast started in Japan. Radiophonic sound has a special tone quality that listeners at that time had not experienced before. Its signal (opposite to noise, in terms of physics) is mixed with an undesirable humming, and the range of frequency is narrower than that of the phonograph. Its lack of overtones and undertones also sounds artificial. Radiophonic sound is susceptible to the performance of the receiver, the reception setting, the weather, and other accidental and individual factors. As radios proliferated, questions were raised in newspapers and journals on how to reduce the mechanical noise, while technicians and radio assembly hobbyists responded using their expertise. Radio shop owners and their staff had to fix problems for their customers upon request. Of course, the undesired noise from a low-cost radio itself was not a concern of the noise abatement campaign because it was considered purely a technical and private issue. As radios were increasingly purchased by less-privileged consumers, however, claims against neighbors’ radios increased simply because their flimsier housing was less soundproof than wealthier people’s homes. Thus, the noise of a neighbor’s radio became a socioeconomic issue as much as a technical one. Evidence of the radio problem can also be found in the above-mentioned Osaka questionnaire, according to which 18% of the total respondents (or 3,610 out of 19,866) replied that radio was one of the most disturbing sound sources in the evening, only second to automobile noise (3,652 respondents).33

In 1929, an owner of rental rooms for students tried to sue a neighboring radio shop owner because the noise from morning until night annoyed his student clients, so much so that some had moved away (February 14, 1929, Yomiuri Shimbun). The shop owner defended the noise because of its business purpose and said that some students might enjoy broadcasts for free. The room owner, in turn, claimed that a radio was played even after the shop closed, as the shop owner’s wife was listening to it for her own pleasure. But his case against the shop owner was unsuccessful. A few years later an article in a law journal noted that the Police Criminal Order could not be applied to the radio shop noise case because the shop “is a commercial activity licensed by legal process and the use of loudspeaker is justified as a right entailing it.”34 Hence, the only solution the police could recommend to the apartment owner was to rely on sentiments of public morals and self-control. A well-known judge had hesitated to intervene in this case because “those involved could resolve the litigation by mediation if they appropriately considered the concrete situation.”35 He proposed establishing a summary court to facilitate legislative procedures. Litigation between neighbors, he expected, should be handled without heavy legal measures.

An article with the headline “Urban People Are Getting More Nervous! Radio Noise Gets Noisier” presented comments of a physician and a psychiatrist side by side (September 5, 1932, Yomiuri Shimbun). The physician, Ryûzaburo Taguchi (member of the Acoustical Society of Japan), mentioned that radio noise was generated by the poor performance of a cheap receiver and this worsened when one (over)heard it in humble living conditions. That is, he argued, that radio stations were not responsible for this noise. The psychologist, Takeshi Nishikawa (director of a mental hospital), in turn, mentioned an increase in patients who suffered from auditory hallucinations and from hysteria caused by listening to the radio. For him, discomfort arising from aural environments caused neurosis in urban dwellers. The article thus intended to educate readers about causes and effects, as well as the objective and the subjective aspects of radio noise.

Another answer for the noisiness of the neighbor’s radio was made by psychologist Kin’ichi Hirose in his Acoustical Psychology, the first Japanese book in the field.36 He explained how sound perception depended less on the physical characteristics of sound than on the complexity of sonic fluctuation, its significance to individuals, and its foreground-ness (as distinguished from background sound). His argument was not much different from R. Murray Schafer’s thoughts on “hi-fi” and “low-fi” soundscapes. Hirose, then, proposed a new concept of the “disturbing sound” that defined noise on perceptive and psychological levels. He underlined “the degree of psychological force of sound” and “psychological value” in the aurality.37 Musical sound, due to its (humanly) artistic articulation, can easily disturb others (as in the case of amateur musical practice) more than the buzzing of nearby trains because meaningful sounds (such as language, music) psychologically influence listeners more than sounds without significance. Thus, he clarified broadly an acoustical theory of masking and filtering developed later by academics in the humanities. Hirose was just about the only Japanese psychologist who was committed to the study of noise. In his experiment, several participants, while standing in several noisy spots in Tokyo for a set time span, indicated the kinds of noises they heard and the number of times they heard each one. He found that respondents felt that disruption of conversation was another social criterion to define noise. His approach, which combined quantitative and qualitative methods, was little elaborated upon by other scientists or applied by public institutions, probably because psychology was still a nascent discipline at the time.

It is curious to know why in previous decades the sound from a neighbor’s phonograph had not been so frequently claimed or blamed as that of a radio. The occasional newspaper articles against the noisy record-playing hardly raised the public consciousness to reform the situation, but individual cases remained. I guess the reason is that the repertoire of recordings was so selective (mainly good for entertainment, and neighbors could categorize whether they liked or disliked the music). Moreover, due to the brief playing side of the discs, each play finished within three minutes, even for the listeners of symphonies. Therefore, there were intervals for the annoyed neighbors. By contrast, radio programs covered a huge range of sounds, from entertainment and education to sports and weather reports that may have been unpleasant for the neighbors, and furthermore, radio broadcasts have no intermission. Besides the sound quality and loudness, these basic conditions of radio broadcast are possible reasons for the increasing complaints. Moreover, the sense of privacy, nourished with the new urbanization, may have been a reason for elevating neighbors’ noise as a social issue.

When one victim of a neighbor’s radio put a note on the entrance of the neighbor’s house—“Your radio is our bother!”—the neighbor bitterly countered, saying that the radio could be switched off, but a baby could not stop crying “unless it was strangled” (August 19, 1938, Yomiuri Shimbun). Crying babies in premodern row houses must have disturbed neighbors for centuries, but they had not caused lawsuits. Babies seem to have the “right to make noise,” according to the unwritten rules of communal life.38 Why did this tacit consensus dysfunction in the 1930s?

What is crucial here is the new consciousness of the notion of “privacy” and the related emergence of a “new middle class” (who were typically white-collar employees) in the 1910s and ’20s. As Jordan Sand noted, Japanese life, modernizing under the pressure of the Western gaze, had seen a transformation of the significance of “home” (and its concrete realization, the “house”) since the late 19th century. The newly made “home” was considered “a space apart from the political space,” “a sphere of domestic privacy,” and a “place for retreat from larger collectivities.” Consequently, “[p]rivacy here became for the first time a space to be mapped in house and city plans,” in which the special boundaries between the private and the public “acquired new significance.”39 With the rising consciousness of the value of “feel[ing] at home,” outside sounds are occasionally perceived as disturbing (or invading) this peaceful feeling by the home dwellers. Such a modern consciousness of domesticity was nourished as the Western-trained upper class passed these values on to the middle class and beyond (or below) in a long-term social modernization process. The house of the playwright in the film mentioned in the introduction, The Neighbor’s Wife and Mine, was built in the new residential suburbs and is one typical instance of Western-style housing (so-called bunka jûtaku, or “culture housing”) popular among the new middle class. Since noise abatement is part of a reformist project of everyday life, much of Sand’s argument on reforming domestic space and middle-class involvement is applicable to the context of noise abatement if one considers that noise is not material in itself, but rather environmental and sensory. Improving one’s sensory environment is just as important as improving one’s material surroundings.

The film’s closing song, “My Blue Heaven,” is a perfect anthem for this new “feel[ing] at home.”40 The song was the first “jazzy” (read, “American-ish”) hit in Japan and reportedly sold over 200,000 copies. A phrase in Japanese lyrics—“small but cozy home” (translated liberally from “the shelter of each little nest” and “a cozy room” in the original)—became the most-quoted cliché designating the ideal of owning a moderately sized yet private house for the (sub)urban middle class. These structures increased in number after the Great Kantô Earthquake due to changes in urban industrial structure as a whole, and they also represented new “middlebrow” trends. These new homeowners were principal consumers of the latest commodities and leisure activities (such as social dancing and sports) and were aesthetically and intelligibly sensitive to all things Western. Their sensitivity extended to their living conditions, in recognizing and categorizing bothersome sounds that invaded their private space from neighboring houses as noise. It seems that the increasing sense of privacy nourished by new forms of living units and housing conditions, on the one hand, and by the idealization of Western concepts of “home” and “family,” on the other hand, would have an impact on the increasing complaints about sound invading the private world from outside.

A rising sense of “privacy” was linked not only to the new household and dwelling spaces, as Jordan Sand explained in detail, but also to the growing frequency of anonymous relations between neighbors and the resulting collapse of mutuality that had been the foundation of Japanese everyday life in densely populated areas for centuries. The claims against neighbors’ noise in the 1930s show us how privacy as a basic feeling of urbanites expanded to working-class households. The hidden social rule of mutuality presupposes that what one does for or against another individual or collective will be rewarded or punished later in one way or another. The majority of residents learn to, or are trained to, be tolerant of neighbors’ behaviors, knowing that the well-being of their community is based on reciprocal individual relationships. A socially linked chain of mutually beneficial acts (or at least neutral acts) creates social stability. This expected reciprocity fosters and reinforces a sense of quasi-egalitarianism and communality. Such a moral (or at least idealistic) system of social maintenance on the micro level gradually collapsed due to the growing number of anonymous neighbors, to whom one owed no favor. With this new social and sonic consciousness, hearers of the undesired sounds came to self-identify as “victims” and thus felt justified to sue the noise emitter either in the courts or via the press.

Among the complaints of radio noise, the only specific program named was Radio Calisthenics, which has been broadcast by the nationwide broadcast network (NHK, the state-run monopoly station until 1951) every morning at six o’clock since 1929. In 1934 the program was further reinforced by local organizations and began to be played in hierarchical institutions such as schools, neighborhood community associations, and factories. The exercise routines called to the participants to build a healthy nation. Due to its participatory character, recipients (sometimes over thousands of them) stood in front of the radio and followed the vocal instructions of the leader played loudly. It became a quasi-national, quasi-military ceremony and a preparation for total mobilization.

Radio Calisthenics, still broadcast today, symbolizes national unification through the coordination of bodies via the electrified sound wave. Nevertheless, some have not been happy to hear it. One suffering listener wrote:

[I]t is really troublesome to exercise radio gymnastics every morning at six in my tiny community area. I heard that the police set regulations this year, but the [broadcasts] didn’t stop. We should never be tolerant of the radio noise nearby. [Since we cannot rely on the police], we request the radio station to stop radio calisthenics, the horrible neighborly nuisance. Peoples’ lifestyles are complicated. Some, when their job permits, must go to bed early and wake up early. There are plenty not like them, however. I can’t stand shrieking sound as early as at six a.m. (April 27, 1938, Yomiuri Shimbun).

This letter writer probably worked the night shift and felt compelled to appeal to a newspaper readership that embraced the more diversified lifestyles of the metropolitan citizens, rejecting national surveillance by the radio station.

In 1929, police authorities officially showed their interest in the noise problem. The journal Police Research (Keisatsu Kenkyû), edited by the police agency, circulated an article titled “On the Preservation of Quietness” that dealt with noise reduction in London, Paris, Vienna, and New York. Regional Officer Shigeo Shimizu, who was responsible for the contents of the first Sound Regulations promulgated a few months earlier, justified the involvement of police in noise issues as follows:

It goes without saying that the development of modern science and extraordinary rise of industry have caused enormous influence upon police administration. The range of policing activities is becoming wider and more complicated in the domains of security, traffic, public health, industry and many others.…

Lately, noise reduction has become a serious issue in Western countries. In metropolises, there are numerous sorts of noise, such as the sound of the explosive engine of automobiles, horns, motor and siren of factories, trains, the shrieking sounds of streetcars, screams of people on the street, radio loudspeakers, etc. Metropolitan citizens, though suffering from the chaotic noise, believed that noise was a culturally normal phenomenon, accompanying the development of modern science and [resulting as] its inevitable consequence. They have underestimated the influence of noise. However, they no longer appear to be patient enough to neglect amplifying noise. Therefore, the public is claiming that policing authorities should take measures to reduce noise, in order to preserve quietness in the metropolis and to control the public health of its inhabitants.41

He went on to explain noise in the administrative context. The Sound Regulations referred to shops’ loudspeakers used for advertising and automobile horns, both of which were frequently blamed. Newspapers announced the new regulations under the headline, “Start Saving the Metropolitan Citizens in the Age of Neurotic Noise” (July 22, 1930, Yomiuri Shimbun). Nonetheless, the head of the metropolitan security department, while affirming the importance of regulation, was afraid that it was useless or unnecessary. Learning from the examples of other countries, he stated, “We will consider the application deliberately.” “Deliberately” was (and still is) a bureaucratic term that implies passivity or resignation regarding authorities’ actions (or lack thereof). The following headline shows how after five months it ended in vain: “Be Quiet, Automobile Horn! Noise Prevention / Don’t Buy or Sell the Products Making Unpleasant Sound” (November 29, 1930, Yomiuri Shimbun). One taxi driver defended his trade, muttering that a soft horn would be ignored by pedestrians, causing traffic disorder. Quiet and traffic order were not always compatible.

On July 1, 1934, the stricter measure was prescribed by the Automobile Regulation. It prohibited the oft-blamed use of electric and air-pumped horns (some drivers used them for the pleasure of showing off, much like today’s “kamikaze bikers”) and permitted only smaller horns, a claxon with an air bag made of rubber (in Japanese legal language, it was termed a “horn generating a soft sound”). It also obliged motorists to use an efficient muffler and noiseless engines and transmissions.42 Traffic signal posts set in the center of a crossroads with bells (which rang at every turn of direction) were also taken away. When automobile owners passed the police check of their car’s horn, only then did they receive a seal permitting them to drive. The price of a legal horn of course rose after the law was implemented (July 3, 1934, Tokyo Asahi Shimbun).

To test their regulation of horns, police and the municipal government created an event called Noise Prevention Day as part of a traffic safety campaign; two months prior to the event, the law had prohibited the use of existent horns. The number of horn sounds and passing automobiles were measured at several points, and the results showed that the prohibition of loud horns did not cause accidents or create disorder, as the taxi driver had complained.43 Their test verified positive outcomes related to the obligatory use of a “soft” horn. The collusion between police authorities and the Tokyo metropolitan government was obvious in their administration of traffic noise. Their official report showed positive results after the promulgation of the Automobile Regulation,44 but the dark noise level (“roaring”), measured by the Metropolitan Public Health Section, did not differ greatly from the research conducted by Takeo Satô five years earlier (April 18, 1935, Tokyo Asahi Shimbun). It is likely the sudden noises made by loud car horns had decreased, but the “infernal noise” (as it had often been called) on main streets remained as always. Compared to automobile noise, the project of muffling tramcar noise did not interest press and police probably because this task would have been exclusively concerned with technical improvement by engineers in collaboration with manufacturers. The above-mentioned Committee of Acoustics of Electric Trains, however, did not deal with attempts to gain mechanical perfection, but only measured sound level and frequency. The engineers and the committee thus hardly participated in noise abatement practices.

Following the automobile horn, another target of regulation was loudspeakers at record shops. This time the new Traffic Regulation was applied, which prohibited “the traffic disturbance by gathering passersby at the outside of shops for the purpose of sales” (October 30, 1935, Tokyo Asahi Shimbun). The security section of the police department ordered that (1) the volume should be lowered; (2) the loudspeaker should be directed inside from outside and the owner should have listening space with seats; and (3) the shop should play not only popular songs but also “healthy” songs for children and Western art music (July 3, 1937, Miyako Shimbun). The primary purpose was decreasing the size of the crowd gathering around the record shops in order to allow for a smooth flow of pedestrians; noise reduction was secondary. Loudly playing the latest and upcoming hit songs, however, had been important for both the shops and the record labels since the 1920s, to increase sales. Such an advertising tactic had to be changed, said one shop owner. The second point illustrates an ideal concept of a record shop as a salon, similar to today’s listening booths. Clearly, few shops were spacious enough to set up individual listeners’ space.

The third point was not concerned with the volume, but with the aesthetic quality of music amplified. It meant that the police attempted not only to control the disturbance to the public but also to shield them from what they thought were “vulgar” songs. Popular songs, in their reasoning, were noisy because they were in opposition to “good” music. Ideally, the record shops should become satellite stations for music education and concert halls. They also would have known that the reproduction of educational songs and art music would pull in smaller numbers of passersby. Despite these proposed measures, the regulation of street noise was barely effective, because the authorities did not systematically check if the record shops played the correct music on their phonographs, at the correct volume, and/or had a proper listening area. The top-down regulations were more likely to function as a demonstration of fortified police surveillance on people’s conduct rather than actual noise abatement. The vanity of legal governance over noise-making was not specific to Japan. In New York, too, ordinances “could be effective only if people understood that noise was unhealthy, inefficient, and often unsafe. Therefore, the police should act as an educational rather than a punitive body.”45

Followed by the application of the automobile and street regulations to the noise problem, the Loud Sound Regulations were promulgated on January 1, 1937. They were the first to deal explicitly with noise troubles in the private sphere; in the press the first article was the most mentioned noise regulation: “Article 1. One should not make loud sounds using the radio, phonograph, drums, wooden blocks, and other musical instruments which might be a nuisance to the neighboring area.” Lawmaker Tsunehei Oikawa highlighted one example of a record shop’s loudspeaker, audible even inside a private house on the other side of the road.46 This article was thus aimed at softening the aggressive loudness caused by record playing at record shops, as much as it targeted a neighbor’s radio.

“Article 2. In case that one’s use of electric devices generates a disturbing noise in radio receivers, the user should take measures to adjust it.” According to Oikawa, this is concerned with the users of X-ray machines, electric hair clippers, motors, and other tools, which potentially generated a weak electric current that might cause nearby radio receivers to emit noise, and the article obliged the users to resolve it by setting their device appropriately. Here, the tool’s electronic interference hinders the meaningful transmission of radiophonic messages. The humming noise is part of the experience of the “nuisance of neighboring area” but is totally different from the “loud sounds” defined in Article 1. The law therefore also benefited radio users, which explains why the Communication Bureau hailed the new regulations. In fact, many articles in the radio magazines mentioned various technical measures to avoid the humming (either from the receivers themselves or from the interference mentioned in the regulation) for the purpose of improving the signal-to-noise ratio. Article 2 was never mentioned in newspapers, probably due to its limited and complicated application. Although it had little pragmatic coercive force, it demonstrated the value and the need of efficient communication on radio that would later be useful under Japan’s militaristic regime.

In Oikawa’s words, radio “is not only a machine for amusement, but is also indispensable for today’s life.” A range of news—business information, developments in the war, and the weather report—were all communicated to the public through radio so that the “police need to guarantee clear listening by preventing the troublesome reception.” The regulations, hence, were less concerned with the privacy of individual life than with the clear transmission of governmental messages throughout the nation. In other words, the regulations seemingly controlled neighbors’ noise, but in reality, they were implemented to ensure the efficiency of the radio station as a state instrument. They showed a strict attitude toward radio sound more clearly than any other law. Oikawa resolutely noted, “We, the whole nation, today must work for the sake of country” and home “must be a quiet place for storing the energy of activity.”47

It is in that period that “for the sake of sacred country” became an official bombastic statement, applicable to any patriotic discourse, although no one was allowed to ask for its true meaning. Under that slogan, any individual conduct was controlled by the intimidating police surveillance of its citizens. Unfortunately, Oikawa laments, there were some who did not care about the neighbors’ bothersome activities. This private friction ultimately would harm the nation’s unity. The law, thus, was intended to regulate some people’s unpatriotic conduct. In this way, friction between neighbors over sonic issues was overlaid upon a nationalistic ideology that had been reinforced after the Sino-Japanese War had been launched half a year earlier: good Japanese citizens should not make noise. This moral could imply metaphorically that the country required national obedience to a ruling voice. The Loud Sound Regulations were not particularly aimed at reinforcing the control of loud sounds but were used for “educating” and warning people that the sound volume in public and private spaces was under governmental control. Because of the vague wording, the regulations could be applicable to a broad range of cases. No arrests were documented, but the police did give out “advice” and “warnings.” The regulations functioned rather as an “educational tool” to control sound than as “punitive one,”48 because it was pragmatically impossible to arrest violators—that is, unless police officers watched with decibel meters on every street corner.

One might wonder why Article 1 of the Loud Sound Regulations specifies, following electric sound, “drums, wooden blocks, and other musical instruments” as virtual noisemakers. The pressure on a special Buddhist sect called Hokkeshû is obvious; the group, unlike the other sects, uses “drums, wooden blocks” in their daily rituals, either at home or in temples. Compared to their religious practices, neighborly music making (playing a piano, for example) was negligible (merely mentioned as “other musical instruments”) in the Article 1.49 The chant of Hokkeshû devotees with accompanying percussion had been disliked for centuries by their neighbors, but because the sect itself had been authorized by the central powers (of previous Tokugawa or Meiji regimes), the devotees did not refrain from their practices. The authorities could intervene by enforcing litigation only when the conflict was intense: in the first instance the police usually gave warnings to the devotees, using persuasion and other non-punitive measures; then, the devotees normally resumed their sonic practices after a pause, the length of which was dependent on their piety and relationship with the antagonists. Though the political conflict between Hokkeshû and the government (as well as with the other sects) can be traced back to the 16th century (as noted in several provincial revolts), the friction between the parties was superficially smoothed over, and when freedom of religion was constitutionalized in 1889, it vanished. Nevertheless, Hokkeshû members were “marked” by the majority as late as the 1930s, probably due to their peculiar aural presence. They were not marked because of any violent congregations or ominous teachings, but merely because of the bothersome sound that distanced the sect from the neighboring community and mainstream society. They were, so to speak, the aural Other for the ritually quiet majority.

The ritual of the Hokkeshû temples continued regardless of local sonic warfare. The Tokyo Police Department advised them to stop their aural worship after 11 p.m. to protect their neighbors’ sleep (April 14, 1937, Yomiuri Shimbun). Two years later, the temples still kept on praying in the same manner for two hours every morning, and were accused by a neighbor of causing a “crazy noise reverberating overwhelmingly to the four corners of town” (August 4, 1939, Tokyo Asahi Shimbun). His letter underlined that police should not leave temple members to worship freely but to take uncompromising measures. The Shibuya Ward Police presented summons to 84 temples to preach with respect for their neighbors’ comfort, while the monks made excuses, saying that the chanting was their duty to the parishioners (August 22, 1939, Yomiuri Shimbun). Then, one monk proposed a solution: “Why not do it in sync with Radio Calisthenics?” Although we do not know how this conflict concluded, there is humor in the balance of two apparently different routines in terms of history, sound quality, and meaning.

The regulation of the use of wooden blocks had an unexpected side effect (December 22, 1937, Tokyo Asahi Shimbun). Night watch teams strolling around the community usually used (and continue to use) wooden blocks, calling “Watch out for fire!” in a chant-like vocal. The night watch was part of the routines of neighborhood associations, which are organized around the country. The sound of wooden blocks was received as a sound mark of security (and surveillance) by the neighbors. Did they have to abandon their signature sound? One watchman said that the neighbors would feel unprotected if they patrolled without wooden blocks. The special percussive sound was so important for the sense of security that the regulation was likely to be ignored by night watch teams (and many other noisemakers).

As discussed previously, the “owners” of the noise abatement campaign were by and large conscious of the needs and desires of middle-class reformists concerned with living environments. They defined undesired sound in both the private and the public realms. Broadly speaking, the urban middle class consisted of the families of office workers with college educations, some of whom had grown up in the countryside and in provincial towns. In their adopted home in the metropolis, they were neither bound to the traditional institutions of families and social hierarchy nor to the ambition of climbing the social ladder that has been characteristic of the highly educated classes since the 1880s. Rather, they were accommodated to individualism and a more moderate sense of reality compared to previous generations. The socioeconomic term “middle class” and its synonyms appeared around the 1910s in Japanese publications, but its existence became more visible after the Great Kantô Earthquake—not only demographically but also culturally through emerging mass media reporting, favorably or not, of people’s consumption of and penchant for cutting-edge Western commodities and cultural products. As media historian Takumi Satô formulated in his analysis in Kingu (King), an iconic monthly magazine launched in 1925 that proclaimed itself the “magazine for one million readers,” it was a powerful media and public discourse that configured the image of readership, the establishment of “popular” and “mass” cultures (differentiated from folk and elite ones), and the identification of a “middle class” with national representation.50 The readership of popular magazines (mainly consisting of the urban middle class) easily portrayed their world and culture as representative of the entire nation.

As Tokyo recovered its economic and commercial status from scratch after the earthquake, new commodities and sensory products flowed into metropolitan life from abroad, ranging from automobiles and films to swing records, perfumes, and chocolates. The major group that could afford these items was the middle class, and they classified mechanical sound borne from the technological goods they consumed; once it was deemed “noise,” they had to agree with its abatement. As they defined themselves as the “people-mass” (taishû) and agents for “popular culture” (taishû bunka), they tended to distinguish themselves from the laboring classes, who were generally invisible in popular culture, as Sand summarized as follows: “[A] monopoly of the progressive, cosmopolitan ideas and practices derived from advanced education and the informal media to which education gave access was the foundation of privilege and what distinguished one from the laboring classes of both city and country.”51

This explains why factory noise was unlikely to be an urgent issue for noise abatement campaigns, since factories were mainly located in the downtown wards in East Tokyo (the “industrial zone,” as defined by municipal planners), a little far from the “residential zone” (of The Neighbor’s Wife and Mine, for example) in West Tokyo. It was the middle-class reformists who “owned” the public opinion that created these views, which were supported by a middle-class-centered media and academia.

In 1922, for example, when a neighbor of a plating factory in downtown Tokyo asked about measures to resolve problems of smoke and noise, the newspaper replied that a meeting with municipal police might be in order (July 1, 1922, Yomiuri Shimbun). Factory noise was ubiquitous in the downtown area, but the neighbors did not know what to do about it. Although the Factory Regulation, issued in 1906, referred to owners’ obligation to control the noise, it was more aimed at labor efficiency than the neighbors’ well-being (few factory workers probably knew about the law on noise reduction). In reality, neighbors hardly ever tried to negotiate with factories. In the same year, a concerned medical doctor wrote about the neglected relationship between the sound and the hearing abilities of neighbors, mentioning that there “are gradually increasing numbers of deaf people whose hearing function has been destroyed by the recent developments in industry and traffic system.”52 He clarified how “the intense sound from morning till night” made the nearby residents psychologically uncomfortable as much as physically deafened. He called this crisis a “labor problem.” This term tells us his sympathy with a rising socialist sentiment and social reform during the 1910s and 1920s. By 1910, in fact, issues regarding stench and smoke had already been problematized in the administrative and academic contexts in Tokyo’s downtown, and problems regarding noise soon ensued.53 However, it was not until the Great Kantô Earthquake that noise surfaced as a serious problem.

In spite of the promulgation of the Loud Sound Regulations in 1937, a newspaper article notes, a factory built near a primary school was so loud that the teachers “must teach screaming” to make the children hear each other over the noise (July 2, 1937, Tokyo Asahi Shimbun). The ward assembly ordered the factory to move out, but the order was in vain. The newspaper criticized the police who had permitted the construction next to a school (against the preexistent regulations). One does not know how the negotiation proceeded among the ward, the schoolmaster, the parents, the police, and the factory. The power balance was too delicate for the friction to be clearly resolved, and nothing had changed in over 30 years of the factory’s noise totally disturbing the lessons in neighboring school (November 25, 1900, Yomiuri Shimbun). Engineers, though insufficiently, had tried to make changes, applying mufflers, soundproof walls, and others mitigating measures to the factory.

In most cases, I suppose, the neighbors could not meet with factory executives unless they had a strong cooperative community group. Each economic and environmental situation was distinct, and there were no fixed resolutions applicable through legislative measures. One respondent in the Osaka questionnaire furiously deplored: “We the whole family are little by little being killed by factory noise. We have no way for appealing. We are just waiting for death. Now your investigation looks like the apparition of God. Help us immediately.”54 She believed that an investigation would resolve a private problem, but she would soon be disappointed because it did not change the reality. Newspapers reported the meetings and litigation between the factory and the neighbors, but no articles on the reconciliation were found. The ever-growing military regime certainly prioritized industrial production over people’s living conditions.

On a general level, anti-noise campaigns were a strategic part of civilizing urban life and cultivating individual dignity, because noise was considered the opposite of civilization and cultivation from the intellectual point of view. For example, well-known linguist Izuru Shinmura wrote an article “Sound Disarmament Conference,” alluding to the then-hot topic of the 1927 Disarmament Conference in Geneva. He insisted on setting time limitations on radio broadcasts and home music practice to reduce ubiquitous sound nuisance (April 1, 1928, Ôsaka Asahi Shimbun): “Today’s people became very sensitive to sound. They not only have a highly developed musical taste. They are also obliged to sharpen their sensibility and resistance to sound. The hyper-sensibility to sound stimuli of today’s cultured people (bunkajin) cannot be compared to previous generations” (emphasis added). He believed that a person’s “sensibility” was more important to noise perception than physical volume or sound quality itself. Put simply, to elaborate one’s own aesthetic sensibilities, one must turn off the noisy radio and phonograph. Radios and phonographs had a double-edged effect: while they democratized art music, they also scattered unwanted sound. This contradiction perplexed Shinmura. He redefined his supposed readership as “today’s cultured people” (instead of “today’s people”). Only the “cultured” could perceive noise as such because they knew art music, while the “non-cultured” did not hear noise, because they did not have good taste. It is unlikely that Shinmura would call up the working-class residents suffering from factory and traffic noise for his imaginary Sound Disarmament Conference, because he would have deemed them “uncultured” and naturally insensitive to noise.

The noise abatement campaign in an industrializing and electrifying Japan was related to a complex juxtaposition of ideas arising from leading figures in science, technology, media, police, law, and public health, as well as from new standards of living. The influence of Western research on noise was evident in the campaign, but local cultural situations also contributed to configuring the abatement discourses and practices. Unlike the United States and Europe, Japan had no experience with anti-noise organizations, nor was there a heightened sense of public opinion on the matter before the 1920s, although the prohibition of noisemaking on the street after midnight and the obligation to control the mechanical noise from engines, machines, and factories had been put into law since the 1870s. But these regulations were not only difficult to apply in reality; they were also ineffective in raising social consciousness. One of the clear examples of Japan’s “cultural lag” in this area would be the absence of a noise abatement committee, as seen in New York (1929), France (1928), Germany (1930), England (1934), and the Netherlands (1937).55 Fujiwara’s idealistic call for one as quoted earlier in this paper was neglected. Each governmental and municipal agency planned noise abatement according to its own interests, but no unifying institution to oversee these efforts was organized. Police hesitated to get involved with noise complaints except the control of soft car horns and shops’ loudspeakers. The use of decibel measurement by the researchers could be seen as evidence for anti-noise campaigners and legislative administrators, but the researchers did not intervene in neighborhood conflicts caused by noise. In other words, the public and private domains were distinctly recognized as separate and thus they dealt with noise issues in different ways.

The well-known critic and scholar of popular culture Yasunosuke Gonda insisted in 1927, when radio nuisance began to be discussed in the press, that “‘the neighbors’ radio’ is not a social problem.”56 It is because the “social problem” he defines consists of class conflict, endurance, and objective causality (necessity). For him, concerns about the neighbors’ radio is not based on class conflict but on differences in taste; it is not endured but contingent and occasional; it is subjective and accidental (the situation differs from one case to another). He defines the neighbors’ radio as a “security and police problem,” instead of a “social problem,” as the contemporary media often labeled it. His understanding of “social problem” is certainly problematic for today’s sociological point of view (the Marxist notion of class, endured entity, and the fixed objectivity of society). But what underlies the indecisive attitude of bureaucracy against the noise abatement, I suppose, was similar to Gonda’s conceptualization. The noise was considered more contingent and local-specific than “social.”

I have reconstructed the trajectory of how noise abatement became a topic of public opinion aided by publications in newspapers and technical journals of acoustics, legal studies, and police enforcement. Most significantly I have underscored the significance of the period between 1923 and 1937 in Japan’s sound (and noise) history since the emergence of amplification technology, post-earthquake city planning, and motorization of transport transformed people’s aural senses and experiences, and their views. To apply Sand’s overview on Japanese cultural history of housing, the earthquake marks the beginning of the second phase of Japanese modernity, the “mass-society modern,” which is separated from the first one, “bourgeois modern” (ca. 1870s–1910s), in which state-building was imperative for intellectuals who struggled to find “Japan’s place in the imperial order” by establishing a “modern [European] bourgeois culture.”57 The “mass-society modern,” in turn, consisted of “global mass-mediated consumerism, in which intellectuals reconfigured that culture for a wider public as they sought to define a cosmopolitan identity and lifestyle.”58 The rising consciousness of noisiness was part of this general transition. (Although Sand roughly puts the divide at World War I, the 1923 earthquake is more clearly the dividing point in Japanese aural culture.) The more the intellectuals sought to define a better cosmopolitan lifestyle, the more they met with its negative byproduct of noise. They “owned” the noise issue and made it known to a “wider public” through the abatement campaign. The year 1937 coincided with the escalation of the Sino-Japanese War, with the Marco Polo Bridge Incident near Beijing (July 1937). The advanced militarization prioritized the totalitarian regulations of people’s lifestyles, neglecting their quality. Noise abatement was cancelled from the political agenda (although the new yet ineffective regulations were legislated by 1943).

The perception of noise results from the complicated interaction between physical vibrations of air and individual recognition. In the case of neighborhood noise, I submit that its definition is related less to its decibel level than it is to the kinds of sound; human relationships; individual adaptabilities; socioeconomic, educational, and class consciousness levels; and psychological and physical conditions—as well as many other accidental and individual factors. Because of this variability, there could be no effective law or police enforcement; instead, self-control and the expression of individual morals were proposed as a remedy. This solution was fundamentally an ethical issue, which did not necessarily go hand-in-hand with an engineering solution. How can we find a way to reconcile ethics with science and technology? Is the concept of public and private in modern Japan culturally specific? How has the noise issue in prewar Japan changed (or not) in postwar Japan? These are questions best left for the future studies of sound and sound control in Japan.


Emily Thompson, The Landscape of Modernity. Architectural Acoustics and the Culture of Listening in America (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002), 1.


Ibid., 1–2.


Ibid., 11.


Karin Bijsterveld, Mechanical Sound. Technology, Culture, and Public Problems of Noise in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008), 18. Emphasis in the original.


Ibid., 7.


David Novak, “Noise,” in Keywords in Sound, ed. David Novak and Matt Sakakeeny (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015), 129.


Bijsterveld, Mechanical Sound, 19. Emphasis in the original.


Kyûsaku Yumeno, Yumeno Kyûsaku Chosakushû (The Collected Works of Kyûsaku Yumeno) (Tokyo: Chikuma Shobô, 1992), 3.


Ibid., 9–10.


Shôhei Tanaka, “Kakuseiki Kansei no Ongaku ni Oyobosu Eikyô (The Influence of the Completed Loudspeaker on Music),” Ongaku to Chikuonki (Music and Phonograph) (February 1926): 2–3.


Bijsterveld, Mechanical Sound, 19.




Minoru Takada, “Densha Sôon Bôshi no Shohôhô (Ways to Reduce the Noise of Electric Trains)”, Denki Kyôkai Kaihô (Bulletin of the Association of Electricity) (November 1930): 101–10; Tôru Kashigi, “Toshi no Sôon (Noise in the City),” Toshi Kôgaku (Urban Engineering) (October 1929): 49–55.


Another discipline interested in noise was medical science. For example, the Tokyo Municipal Research Center for Public Health, following the American model, carried out comparative research with rats raised in quiet circumstances and noisy ones to discover that the rats in the latter lived longer than those in the former (July 11, 1934, Tokyo Asahi Shimbun). The result was a counter proof against the American experiment that demonstrated the harmful influence of noise on the life of rats. The medical doctor in charge of the experiment said that “the stimulus of noise is necessary for human bodies, too.” In other words, noise could function as nourishment. This theory was reconfirmed by another medical doctor without any proof but was never mentioned in the noise discourse again. Bôgo Koinuma, “Sôon no Seiriteki Eikyô (The Physiological Influence of Noise),” Kenchiku Zasshi (Journal of Architecture) 589 (July 1934): 743–52.

Another medical scientist experimented with the influence of noise on the living body by raising guinea pigs in four sonically different sites (quiet cottage, crossroad of tramcar, transformer substation, and spinning factory) to measure physical changes. His conclusion was that noise hindered the normal growth of bone organization, causing a decrease in carbon dioxide in the blood. Kôjirô Onishi, “Igakujô Yori Mitaru Sôon Mondai (The Noise Problem as Seen from Medical Science),” Toshi Mondai (September 1933): 79–84.

The experiments on noise with human bodies were not executed in prewar Japan. One does not know whether was the result of a limited budget or the criticism of Laird’s experiment with typists by Obata and others.


For more on these audiometers, see Bijsterveld, Mechanical Sound, 108ff.


Takeo Satô, “Tokyoshi no Sôon (Noise in Tokyo City),” Toshi Mondai (November 1930): 12–31; Takeo Satô, “Toshi to Sôon (City and Noise),” Kenchiku to Shakai (Architecture and Society) (September 1933): 40–51.


Thompson, The Landscape of Modernity, 158ff.


Satô, “Toshi to Sôon (City and Noise),” 43.




Jûichi Obata, “Toshi no Sôon Mondai (The Urban Noise Problem),” Toshi Mondai (September 1930), 1.


Bijsterveld, Mechanical Sound, 113–15.


Thompson, The Landscape of Modernity, 105ff.


Minoru Takada, Sôon Bôshi (Noise Prevention) (Tokyo: Shûkyôkan Shoin, 1937).


Hikaru Shôji, “Osakashi ni Okeru Sôon Chôsa (A Survey on Noise in Osaka City),” Kaji to Eisei (Domestic Work and Hygiene) (September 1935): 46–51; Kujûrô Fujiwara, “Toshi no Sôon Bôshi Mondai (The Problem of Urban Noise Reduction),” Toshi Mondai (January 1938): 5–25, (February 1938): 77–101


Naoto Nakajima, Toshibi Undô. Shivikku Ato no Toshikeikakushi (The Urban Beauty Movement: A History of City Planning of Civic Art) (Tokyo: Tokyo Daigaku Shuppankai, 2009), 246ff.


Kujûrô Fujiwara, “Sôon Bôshi ni Kansuru Nyû Yôku Shi no Nisan no Hôki (A Few Legal Acts in New York City on Noise Prevention),” Hôritsu Jihô (October 1934): 12–14.


Thompson, The Landscape of Modernity, 123.


Nakajima, Toshibi Undô, 172.


Hagino and Horio’s research, conducted in 1930, used the Barkhausen Audiometer, while the 1933 Fujiwara project used the portable Sasaki Audiometer, the first domestically made device invented by Rokurô Sasaki, which itself indicated the rising interest in scientific quantification based on acoustical engineering. Hideyoshi Hagino and Kazuo Horio, “Kindai Toshi no Nayami. Sôon no Kaibô (The Trouble of Modern Metropolis: The Dissection of Noise),” Dai Osaka (Great Osaka) (January 1933): 17–27; Kujûrô Fujiwara, “Toshi no Sôon Bôshi Mondai (The Problem of Urban Noise Reduction),” Toshi Mondai (April 1934): 17–36.


Marié Abe, Resonances of Chindon-ya. Sounding Space and Sociality in Contemporary Japan (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2018).


Fujiwara, “Toshi no Sôon Bôshi Mondai (The Problem of Urban Noise Reduction), (February 1938), 92.


Ibid., 96–97.


Fujiwara, “Toshi no Sôon Bôshi Mondai (The Problem of Urban Noise Reduction) (January 1938), 14.


n.a., “Radio no Kujô: Kankeisha ni Kiku (Complaint about the Radio: Asking Those Involved),” Hôritsu Jihô (Law News) (October 1934): 21–24.


Izutarô Suehiro, “Onkyô Baien Tôno Saigai to Hôritsu (Disasters Involving Sound, Smoke, and Law), Hôritsu Jihô (October 1934): 3–4.


Kin’ichi Hirose, Onkyô Shinrigaku (Acoustical Psychology) (Tokyo: Gakugeisha, 1933), 241–42.


Kin’ichi Hirose, “Toshi no Muonka (Silencing City Sounds),” Shinseinen (New Young Boys) (December 1933): 337–39.


Bijsterveld, Mechanical Sound, 178.


Jordan Sand, House and Home in Modern Japan. Architecture, Domestic Space, and Bourgeois Culture, 1880–1930 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press Asia Center, 2003), 4–5.


See also Ibid., 343ff.


Shigeo Shimizu, “Seihitsu Hoji no Keisatsu ni Tsuite (On Policing the Preservation of Quietness),” Keisatsu Kenkyû (Police Research) (April 1929): 101–2.


Minoru Takada and Hôtarô Arimoto, “Toshi no Sôon ni Tsuite (On Urban Noise),” Toshi Mondai (October 1934): 267–83.


Akira Fujimoto, “Jidôsha no Sôon Bôshi Jisshi ni Tsuite (On the Practice of Noise Reduction of Automobiles),” Toshi Mondai (The Municipal Problems) (August 1934): 146ff.




Bijsterveld, Mechanical Sound, 117.


Tsunehei Oikawa, “Kôon Torishimari Kisoku ni Tsuite” (On the Loud Sound Regulations),” Hôritsu Jihô (February 1938): 41–43.






The neighbors’ piano lessons were controversial since this instrument became a status symbol and good education for the girls of wealthy families (cf. September 29, 1919, Yomiuri Shimbun). Article 1 has a supplementary note stating that “Festivities and other public interests, when inevitable, are exceptions to the rule.” Other examples were drumming during Shinto festivities and the radio broadcast of air-raid drills (Oikawa, “Kôon Torishimari Kisoku ni Tsuite (On the Loud Sound Regulations).” The Shinto drumming was permitted probably because its festivities are annual (not daily) celebrations that last only a few days. The exclusion may also have been affected by the political fact that Shintoism is the religious foundation of the nation-state.


Takumi Satô, Kingu no Jidai. Kokumin Taishû Zasshi no Kôkyôsei (The Age of King: The Commonality of a National Mass Magazine) (Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 2002).


Sand, House and Home in Modern Japan, 361.


Minokichi Kurosu, “Igakujô Yorimita Oto to Mimi no Kankei (The Relationship between Sound and Ear Seen from a Medical Point of View),” Ongaku no Nihon (Musical Japan) (June 1922): 20.


This lag took place in Europe, too; see Bijsterveld, Mechanical Sound, 13–17.


Cited in Shôji, “Osakashi ni Okeru Sôon Chôsa (A Survey on Noise in Osaka City), 48.


Bijsterveld, Mechanical Sound, 112.


Yasunosuke Gonda, Gonda Yasunosuke Chosakushû (Works of Yasunosuke Gonda), vol. 4 (Tokyo: Bunwa Shobô, 1975), 147–51.


Sand, House and Home in Modern Japan, 19.