In the 1920s, what the city sounds like in Japan became “City Music”.

ATMs, talking elevators and escalators. Ringing in department stores, stations, supermarkets and shopping centers. Loudspeaker warnings of bus or train hazards are added to sirens, car horns, traffic and pedestrians. American journalist Daniel Krieger once wrote: “For a culture that values ​​silence, Japan can sometimes be too noisy.”

Japanese noise activist Yoshimichi Nakajima talks about people “marinating in noise”. He says passivity and ignorance are at the heart of his country’s relationship with noise pollution. The Japanese don’t care about noise, they say, they hardly feel it.

Although noise pollution is a modern problem, how to measure, manage and even define it has long been a topic of debate in Japan. My research shows that this was particularly evident in the debates over the language used to discuss the city’s soundscape in the 1920s and 1930s.

Ginza Pass, Tokyo, early 1920s.
Archive Farms Inc | Natural

A changing soundscape

Beginning in the 1860s, life in Japanese cities became rapidly mechanized, shaped by transportation and industry, as the Japanese government imported technology from the West to create a modern nation-state. This process also changed the soundscape.

In September 1902, he wrote a letter “M. A, victim”. Japan Times Complaining about an excessive amount of steamy whistles and factory bells on and around the Sumida River in Tokyo. As urban planners redesign megacities, lay concrete foundations, build subways, and envision new urban landscapes, the noise generated by civil engineering projects increasingly affects everyday life.

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On city streets, rickshaws, horse and bullock carts, carts and pedestrians now compete with bicycles, trams, trains, cars and motorbikes. In the 1920s, the number of cars, trucks and motorcycles in Osaka, the sixth largest metropolis in the world, increased from 39 in 1915 to 6,886 in 1935.

Commentators in the media are going wild. February 2, 1929 issue of the newspaper Osaka Asahi describing this environment as a “hell of modern sounds” causing a “disease of civilization”. And the October 9, 1931 editionOsaka Mainichi described the noise of the city as “the savagery of civilization”.

Academics have a more nuanced opinion. in magazines such as Urban Problemsengineers, architects and acousticians discuss the urgent need for a common definition of urban noise as a prerequisite for any search for solutions.

A color photo of a Japanese street showing different types of transportation
Mitsukoshi department store in Nihonbashi, Tokyo in 1922.
Archive Farms Inc | Natural

Defining urban sound

The Japanese writing system uses phonetic alphabets (hiragana and katakana) and Chinese characters (kanji).

Although different Chinese characters can often have the same pronunciation, the two characters taken separately have different meanings. For example, the kanji used for “sound waves” is pronounced 音響 onkyo ; is a combination of 音 (we“sound”) and 響 (you“echo or reverberation”).

In the discussions of the early twentiese century about the problem of noise in the mainstream media, both pronounced combinations of 騒音 and 騒音 souonused interchangeably to mean “noise”.

However, the problem for scholars in arriving at a common definition of urban noise was that the two terms refer to slightly different things. For physicists, noise refers to complex sound waves that repeat infrequently and can vary in volume and time. It is therefore used to distinguish unwanted sounds and auditory interference from melodic sound waves that are relatively stable in terms of volume and rhythm – music, in other words, pronounced 音楽 in Japanese. ongaku.

But as the physicist Kohata Shigekazu pointed out Urban Problems In September 1930, this usage turned many common sounds of everyday urban life and the natural world into unwanted “noise”. Due to the different, constantly changing frequencies, all kinds of organic, random sounds can be classified as noise: wind and water, footsteps or the sounds of people walking around.

To solve this dilemma, architect Satou Takeo proposed in the same magazine as the first kanji. souon – 騒音 – used to refer to any noise that is unpleasant in everyday life. According to him, the first character of this compound – 騒, penny – means “noisy or turbulent”: taken as a whole, the compound literally means “turbulent sound”. Today, 騒音 refers to noise that effectively disturbs peace and quiet, interferes with the transmission of organized sounds such as music or conversation, or is harmful to hearing or health.

These scientific discussions continued, attracting more and more experts. In 1933, architect Kinichi hoped to resolve the issue by proposing to Hirose Kensouon ( 喧 英语), “noisy, loud, boisterous” ( 喧, yakamashii) to this first compound. According to Hirose, the problem of noise pollution is the healthy environment created by modern technology: the harsh sounds of traffic, civil engineering and construction machinery. It is “the noise of the city” Toshi Kensouon).

In contrast, the sounds that Hirose sees as integral to the aesthetic appeal of urban life—footsteps, chants, blaring radios, and shopkeepers shouting in the street—must be understood as “urban music” (都市音楽, toshi ongaku).

Black and white photo of a river with boats and bridges
Nanivabashi Bridge spanning the Old Yodo River in Osaka, 1920s.
Meiji Showa | Natural

Global discussion

Similar debates were taking place in the newly industrialized world. Historian James G Mansell has shown how people in early 20th century Great Britain ushered their country into an “age of noise”. In this context, class prejudices influenced the definition of urban noise. By means of this expression, it was directed against itinerant merchants and peddlers.

In a 1977 article titled “Cacophony at 34th and 6th,” U.S. historian Raymond Smilor noted that people from all walks of life came together to campaign against noise because “noise is a problem that touches everyone.” speaks.

People weren’t just begging for calm, Smilor writes. They were grappling with the complexity and uncertainty of what he called a completely “new and confusing” society.

This, in turn, led to the emergence of a new economy. As acousticians developed soundproofing, the modern science of acoustics was noted to be capable of providing solutions to the noise problem.

Although this proved futile—cities became increasingly noisy—a similar rush to eliminate noise from experts, scientists, conglomerates, traders, and the state itself can be observed in Japan in the 1920s and 1930s. For some, the sounds of the cities were nothing like a cacophony. They simply created a new kind of music: the urban symphony.

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