Is Japan really the world’s noisiest country?

by David M. Sykes, Vice Chair, The Quiet Coalition

If you’ve been to Japan, you’re likely as astonished as I am to learn that the World Health Organization recently reported Japan to be the world’s noisiest country.

Chiara Terzuolo, Japan Today, writes:

[T]he WHO recommends avoiding being exposed to noise over 53 decibels. The legal average limit in Japan is about 70, a number based on data 50 years out of date, according to Prof Matsui of Hokkaido University who spoke about the problem in an NHK feature on noise pollution in Japan.

Personally, I found major cities in Japan, like Tokyo and Hiroshima, much quieter (and more polite) than American cities like New York or Chicago. And their bullet-train stations are eerily quiet—the trains make NO noise at all, the station PA system speaks in polite whispers, and there are white-gloved attendants around urging people to stand back from the tracks because you might not notice an arriving train. So if Japan is noisy, I don’t remember it that way at all.

In fact, Japan and other Asian nations, like Korea, are far ahead of the U.S. in adopting and enforcing ‘quiet’ ordinances. Visiting there, I’ve seen noise barriers around highways that are 65 feet tall and they’re better at blocking noise from radiating into nearby neighborhoods and more attractive than the crude prison-like fences installed along U.S. highways by the Department of Transportation at a cost of millions of dollars per mile.

Nevertheless, if the World Health Organization’s report is right, it’s interesting proof that noise pollution is a very difficult problem to solve, as difficult as smog and second-hand smoke.

If that’s the case, then it will be a long, long time before we see much improvement in America—because we’ve barely begun to think about this problem.

David Sykes chairs several professional organizations in acoustical science: QCI Healthcare Acoustics Project, ANSI Committee S12-WG44, the Rothschild Foundation Task Force on Acoustics, and the FGI Acoustics Committee. He is lead author of “Sound & Vibration 2.0” (Springer, 2012), a contributor to the NAE’s “Technology for a Quieter America” and the GSA’s “Sound Matters,” and co-founded the Laboratory for Advanced Research in Acoustics at Rensselaer Polytech. A graduate of UC-Berkeley with advanced degrees from Cornell, he is a frequent organizer of professional conferences in the U.S., Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

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