Los Angeles Times, February 26, 1988


By KARL SCHOENBERGER, Times Staff Writer

KYOTO, Japan A crowd gathers along the old wooden veranda of Ryoanji on a recent Sunday to gaze upon the enigmatic rock garden that has made this temple one of the most cherished sites in Zen Buddhism.

Suddenly, the scene is pierced by a woman's voice from an unseen loudspeaker.

"Please look at the garden in silence," she instructs the visitors. The recording then proceeds to chat in Japanese about all aspects of the garden. In a five-minute electronic narrative, involuntary listeners are briefed on the symbolism of the 15 large rocks, ingeniously arranged on a sea of neatly raked pebbles so that no more than 13 can be seen from any single vantage point, and the cause of discoloration in the garden wall -- oil seeping out of the ancient plaster.
Japanese Nonplussed

Many a foreign tourist, in search of a few moments of tranquility, has had nerves jangled by the loudspeaker. But the Japanese in attendance on this sunny winter afternoon seem largely unfazed.

"I suppose it's a nuisance that we really don't need," says Masayoshi Mori, who is visiting Kyoto for the day with his family. "But I didn't hear it. I was watching the garden."

The loudspeaker may have escaped his notice because it is such a common element in the Japanese environment. Everywhere in this country, public address systems bombard people with information. These omnipresent voices speak in trains, stores and city streets. From cradle to grave, the Japanese are guided -- and nagged -- through life's small experiences by loudspeakers.

Where else but in Japan does a loudspeaker apologize for making passengers wait for a train, then warn them to stand behind the white line as it enters the subway station?
Constant Reminders

The shrill babble does not stop there. Loudspeakers admonish passengers against running along the platform and caution them not to step into the crevice between the train and the platform's edge. Once inside the train, passengers are requested to pay attention to the closing door, "because it is dangerous." At their destination, a voice will remind them not to leave any belongings behind.

Such cacophony has become so intrusive that some Japanese are beginning to take notice -- and fight back. Disgruntled citizens in the Tokyo area have formed an anti-loudspeaker association that persuaded former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone to set up the "Loudspeaker Noise Pollution Study Group." An interim report is expected later this year.

"They treat us like children, as though we aren't individuals who can think for ourselves," says Akira Takanashi, a zealous despiser of loudspeakers who coordinates the citizens group. "Why do they have to tell us how to use escalators at the department stores? This really gets on my nerves, especially by the time I've reached the top floor and have heard it over and over again. I hate going to department stores."
Crowd Control Device

At Ryoanji, the temple in Kyoto, the loudspeaker has been refined as a tool of Zen crowd control.

The moment the recording stops, people rise from the veranda floor in unison and begin shuffling off to other parts of the temple, where they can view precious screens and wall paintings. Abandoned to a few idlers, the rock garden assumes ethereal silence until a new throng appears.

Kotaro Yamamoto, an employee in the temple office, says the loudspeaker is played regularly by popular demand.

"There has been some controversy, because this is really a meditative garden and you're supposed to look at it in silence," he says. "But we believe that if we can explain the history and symbolism of the garden, people will get much more out of meditating here."

Even in more mundane settings, the rationale behind such amplification can be difficult for outsiders to fathom. Foreign skiers cringe at the sound of loudspeakers mounted along the chairlifts of Japanese ski resorts. The purpose of the equipment is to fill the snowy scenery with pop music -- and to instruct people in such matters as raising the tips of their skis before getting off the lift, "because it is dangerous."

Teachers use bullhorns to direct calisthenics in the kindergarten yard. Ambulance drivers shout at motorists through loudspeakers as they knife their way through Tokyo traffic. Stores drown shoppers in sad, nostalgic music -- a favorite is "Auld Lang Syne" -- when closing time approaches.

Loudspeakers are the medium of control in public places, a kind of paternalistic control that at times has chilling, authoritarian overtones. But loudspeakers also provide a boisterous outlet to people who defy that very regime of control -- Japan's numerous gadflies, radicals and fascists.

The grandfather of them all is Bin Akao, a 90-year-old right-wing politician who admires Adolf Hitler and rails against communists from atop his sound truck nearly every day, parked on the same corner of Tokyo's Ginza shopping district.

"I'm fighting with ideas," he says, "not volume." But he does not shun the latter.
60-Year Fight

Akao, a perennial losing candidate in local elections whom the Allied occupation authorities once purged for ultranationalism, says he has been orating with loudspeakers for 60 years. He defends the use of the devices by Japanese rightists because there are no other avenues of expression.

"We've been murdered by the mass media," he says. "They've tried to erase us from the airwaves and the news pages, and all they write about is the communists. We have no money, no power. There's no choice but to use sound trucks to get our message across."

Few pedestrians slow down as Akao screams in a raspy voice that "Japan is falling apart." But Kiyoshi Fujiwara, a 51-year-old salesman, stops to listen briefly to Akao's rambling soliloquy.

"I don't agree with him, but his equipment is very interesting," Fujiwara says, referring to the massive loudspeakers mounted on Akao's truck. "I think we need this kind of individual freedom. They should have a place to express their opinions."

Other fascists cruising Tokyo in sound trucks make Akao's performance seem meek and mild. Frequently they charge through downtown streets blasting martial music and bellowing slogans so enthusiastically that workers in surrounding office buildings cannot converse over the din.

Right-wingers are not the only iconoclasts flailing the public with noise. The Japan Communist Party has its own sound trucks, and student radicals are skilled with bullhorns. Japanese labor unions have perfected the use of loudspeakers as an alternative to picket lines.

Amid all the amplified noise, Japan's urban environment also is rich in more euphonious, organic sounds.

On dry winter nights in old Tokyo neighborhoods, volunteer fire patrols can still be heard walking the streets, sounding wooden clappers and calling out: "Hi no yojin" -- "Beware of fire."

Vendors selling Chinese noodles from small pushcarts still roam the night playing their characteristic, plaintive melody on an old folk instrument called a charumera, which sounds like a cross between a bagpipe and a flute.

When it comes to calling out for customers, though, most vendors made the transition long ago to loudspeakers.
'Honorable Yams'

Take the yaki-imo, or roasted yam, salesmen. An army of them prowl city streets in small pickup trucks during the winter months, wailing an amplified song that might be translated like this: "Roasted yams, stone roasted yams! Tasty roasted yams, fresh roasted yams. . . . Honorable yams, honorable yams!"

During the daylight hours, loudspeaker-equipped trucks crawl about residential areas announcing that they will trade tissue paper for old newspapers, magazines and rags. Housewives know it is time to buy fish from the back of a truck when they hear the children's song "Kawaii Sakanaya-san," or "The Cute Fish Monger," in the wind.

As Tokyo and other major urban areas become more densely populated, however, the stress of crowding and commuting seems to be testing the tolerance for loudspeaker noise.

In one indication of rising discontent, the Asahi newspaper said it received an outpouring of letters and phone calls from sympathetic readers this winter after a columnist wrote about the obnoxious qualities of loudspeakers in train stations. Nearly all the readers complained about suffering daily from "annoying loudspeakers."

Takanashi, the organizer of the anti-loudspeaker group in the Tokyo area, says he resolved to do something about the nuisance after he started traveling overseas on business and noticed that no other developed country in the world has noise like Japan.

"Every time I returned to Japan the loudspeakers really bugged me. It was painful," he says. "I knew there had to be other people out there who felt the same way I did."

Takanashi placed an advertisement in the personal columns of a newspaper 3 1/2 years ago and the "Assn. to Think About Noise Pollution by Loudspeakers" was born. It now has a core of about eight serious activists and a mailing list of more than 100 angry people.

"Japanese are supposed to be basically very sensitive to sound -- in tune with nature," says the 40-year-old free-lance writer. "I don't know why we've become a nation that is so numb, so oblivious to all this noise. And I don't really care. I just want to try to make it stop."

GRAPHIC: Photo, Bin Akao, an amplified right-winger, addresses a Tokyo crowd from atop his sound truck. KARL SCHOENBERGER / Los Angeles Times