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Sounding the call for noise-free cities in Japan

Japan must be one of the world's noisiest countries. Although tough environmental measures are beginning to perform wonders on air and water pollution, noise has proved highly resistant.

In fact, it's getting worse.

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For city dwellers, it starts before dawn with heavy trucks rumbling past the front door and commuter trains clattering by at the back. During the day, there are the loudspeakers of sweet-potato sellers or wastepaper collectors - plus politicians at election time.

At night - the only time they can operate because of traffic congestion - road construction gangs get into full swing with their drills and sledgehammers which mingle contrapuntally with off-key singers in numerous snackbars.

Noise has even led to crime. Recently, three members of a family were knifed to death when an apartment neighbor could no longer stand the sound of endless piano practice undiminished by paper-thin walls.

One government survey found 82 percent of all Japanese consider themselves ''victims'' of noise - mainly road noise. The Environmental Agency says at least 6.7 million city residents are consistently exposed to unacceptably high noise levels.

''Noise pollution in Japan is the most serious in the world and is incessantly increasing,'' the government's Council for Science and Technology says. ''If left unattended, it is feared Japanese hearing ability will be seriously threatened in future.''

The Environmental Agency recommends that noise levels in residential areas should not exceed 50 decibels in the daytime and be less than 40 decibels at night. But an estimated 30 percent of Japanese are now exposed to levels of more than 65 decibels almost around the clock.

Basically, it is a matter of congestion. Most of Japan is mountains, leading to 45 percent of the 118 million population living along a narrow strip of Pacific coast from Tokyo to Osaka that accounts for only 10 percent of the land area.

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This leads to a conflict between housing all these people properly and giving them efficient transportation facilities on a limited amount of land. For more than 10 years Japan has had the highest automobile density in the world, with 2 million extra vehicles coming onto the roads each year.

A government panel of pollution experts advising the Environmental Agency has been studying the problem for two years and has just produced its preliminary recommendations, amounting essentially to a call for creation of noise-free cities.

Noting that conventional measures against automobile-caused noise pollution have had little impact, the Central Pollution Countermeasures Council calls for a drastic change in the structure of urban areas instead.

The biggest cause of worsening noise pollution is the ever-increasing traffic of freight trucks, which handle 97 percent of the total inland freight transportation.

To cope with this, the council proposed a totally separate network of trucks-only highways away from residential areas. Freight distribution depots should be shifted out of the cities to the outer suburbs, and there should be more use of shipping and railways for cargo transportation. Soundproof walls should be built alongside all truck highways, which should also be lined by office buildings and warehouses as ''noise cushions'' for residential areas.

The council's final report will be submitted to the government in March. But already environmental experts are questioning whether the proposals are feasible.

The problem is that past lack of urban planning will be hard to undo in heavily developed areas like Tokyo, which is already a concrete jungle of overhead expressways.

There is hardly any room - on the surface at least - for a network of trucks-only highways away from residential areas. If existing roads are left to the trucks and the people living alongside them are moved out instead, there is a difficult problem of relocation. Already residential land within an hour or so traveling time of central Tokyo is becoming too expensive for a large percentage of the population.

Some experts advocate a network of tunnels to carry the trucks around the capital, but there are many difficulties of ventilation and disaster-prevention to be considered.

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