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(The photograph shows a hall in a Japanese railway station.)

When I was living in Australia with my family in the 70s, we lived in a duplex, or split house, and in the other half lived a woman who played the saxophone (I no longer remember where or how). When she practiced her sax, I would complain to my mother about the noise, which was pretty heartless of me, because I was regularly practicing the horn and my sister the violin at this time. In my defense, I can only say that I was a teenager. My mother’s reply was always “Just don’t listen to it.” I always thought, “How do you do that?” because I couldn’t seem to turn off that noise and how it affected me in my head.

Noise (unwanted sound) has always bothered me, especially gratuitous noise that could easily be silenced. I don’t like chattering TVs or intrusive Muzak; I’m also not a fan of appliances that talk, such as the automated voice that announces when the bath is ready, or the GPS in my husband’s car, which always seems to be murmuring away about something.

Recently I was in a train. If you have ever taken a Japanese train, you know that there are a lot of PA announcements both on the platform and inside the train proper. Many of these are not vital information but “public service” type announcements, such as those discouraging littering or exhorting boarding passengers to let disembarking people get off the train first. This is the category of the announcement I heard in the train that day. The voice in the sky said, “Please don’t talk on your cell phones as the noise might bother someone.” I thought, is everyone around me irony-impaired? The guy haranguing us about not making excess noise is making excess noise himself. Loud conversation, just about anywhere public, is a no-no in Japan; public toilets and elevators are as quiet as libraries.

I wonder how useful this kind of announcement is, or if it just comes under the heading of comfortingly assuring everyone that yes, everything is under control. It’s pretty clear that someone in authority is allowed to make noise, and is rarely called out for it, no matter how unnecessary it is; whereas it is frowned upon when individuals do it.

My point is that noise, or sounds, in general are interpreted as acceptable or not acceptable, depending on who we are. The very same sound can be viewed with total indifference or gut-wrenching rage. I recently heard a Buddhist talk in which the teacher described a meditation session. One participant noticed that the radiator was making a clicking sound, but it didn’t disturb her and she was able to meditate just fine. When she went out for the break, other people were complaining that a man making a clicking sound in his throat had “ruined” their meditation. I don’t know which was actually making the noise -- a radiator or a man -- but it illustrates the fact that noise is in the ear of the beholder.

I used to be very intolerant of dump trucks, which I often encountered on my way to work as a new freeway was being built nearby. How awful! So big and dirty and NOISY. But one lovely day, I happened to notice a dump truck a few hundred yards away on a different road. Its cloth sides were flapping merrily as it whizzed along -- it looked like a clipper ship sailing before the wind. Maybe it was because it was so far away, and I couldn’t hear its noise, that I found it charming. I have never felt angry about dump trucks since then.

Is it all about one’s state of mind? There is no doubt that noise pollution is a worldwide problem, causing suffering to animals and people alike (and even to plants, I suspect). We should all band together to protest against unnecessary noise. I have just undergone, not one but two government elections in my area of Japan. The announcement vehicles that go around the neighborhoods, exhorting us to vote for somebody at top volume, can be teeth-grindingly irritating -- especially as they say nothing about the candidates’ campaign promises or their stance on various issues. But in Japan canvassing by television and taking out ads in ordinary newspapers is not allowed. These sound trucks are thus an important method for the political candidates to get their name out there. I regard them as noise pure and simple, and the same goes for the stump speeches, also at top volume, made in front of railway stations etc. But then, as a foreigner, I don’t have voting rights here. My opinion may be somewhat biased. It’s true that other people seem to regard them as important, so they are not meaningless or unnecessary. I’m sure if these sound cars were outlawed, and election time was just as quiet as ordinary days, many people would miss them.

Everyone probably has a spectrum inside them of what they can endure and what they can’t. Irritations can be large or small. We have all heard the expression, “first world problems”. These are generally small irritations that bother people from developed nations but have nothing to do with other people, for example, “the charger cord for my phone is too short and doesn’t reach to my bed” etc. It is generally agreed, in self-help or spiritual paths, that accustoming ourselves to small irritations will help us to cope when large problems or disasters strike in our lives. If we can get used to a certain attitude of equanimity toward small problems, and avoid excess complaint, we can prevail when things get really rough. This can be difficult, but it is a matter of deciding to do it and then powering through, whether we genuinely feel the equanimity or not. In modern terminology, “fake it till you make it”.

I talk a good line, but this kind of thinking is rather new to me, and I’m just learning how to do it. After all, if there is an irritation, why make it worse by blowing it up to giant size, telling the story to ourselves again and again, and parading it around with banners flying i.e. complaining about it? Changing my mind about it may result in different feelings, such as empathy for another person, understanding that the situation is much more complex than I realized, or simple relief from the eternal hot feeling of being irritated.

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Claire Youmans
Claire Youmans
Apr 25, 2023

My street is normally quiet, but in the prelude to the election, the sound trucks have been cruising about 100 meters away on a larger street perpendicular to mine. So…this made me laugh. It's tough for me to make sure I understand what the community loudspeaker (almost across the street from me in a little park) or the sound trucks are saying, in case I miss something important. I learn language by living here, so I know all kinds of odd things, and don't know many other more usual ones. Today, reading this as I proofread galleys, I notice the silence and smile!


Sara Aoyama
Sara Aoyama
Apr 25, 2023

On the first Sunday that I moved into my current home, I woke up feeling like I might be in a war zone. I could hear shots being fired and planes overhead. It turns out that I live within hearing range of a shooting range. That explained the shots. The planes, it turned out, came from an Air Force base. I wondered how people could stand it. Now, 16 years later, it doesn't even register on my radar.

Similarly, kind of, is the fact that I love the smell of cow manure. That's because I have fond memories of working on a farm as a child and helping to milk the cows. The smell brings me right back to the…

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