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Is the Sound of Children Actually Noise?

This post is coauthored by Jenny Gesley and Sayuri Umeda, foreign law specialists at the Global Legal Research Center.

At some point or another, all of us have been exposed to children’s noise, be it as a parent or a neighbor, at the playground or at a school. And did we not wish for the noise to stop so that we could relax and gather our thoughts? But wait: is it correct to call it “noise,” which is defined as an unwanted, undesired, and unpleasant sound? Some countries, in particular Germany and Japan, might disagree. With a rapidly aging population and low birthrates, both Germany and Japan actually welcome the sound of playing children.

Germany codified an exception to the definition of “harmful environmental effects” for children’s noise on playgrounds or from day care centers in its Federal Immission Control Act, and a recent court decision in Japan argues along the same lines. The following blog post will give an overview of the noise regulations applicable to children’s noise in Germany and Japan.

Schools. Interior with children painting, reading and playing. Gottscho, Samuel H., photographer. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/gsc.5a00389.

Germany (by Jenny Gesley)

At the end of 2016, Germany had an overall population of 82.5 million which is an increase of 346,000 in comparison to the previous year. However, most of the increase in population can be attributed to immigration. Although the fertility rate of German women has stabilized, it is still one of the lowest in the European Union (EU), with only 1.5 children per woman as compared to the EU average of 1.58. An average of 2.1 children per woman is needed to maintain population.

Noise complaints are fairly commonplace in Germany. Neighbors will not hesitate to tell you if you have exceeded the permissible noise level, played music during quiet hours, or that they were woken up by your children running in the upstairs apartment. This is not surprising in a country in which Sunday as the day of rest and spiritual improvement is constitutionally guaranteed. Every city has a noise code which is strictly enforced. If a noise complaint does not work, neighbors are more than willing to let a court decide. German courts are flooded with thousands of such “neighbor cases” every year.

As a reaction to an increasing number of lawsuits against children’s noise emanating from playgrounds, day care centers, and similar places, the German government decided to amend the Federal Immission Control Act in 2011 to give privileged status to such children’s noise and to “provide a clear legislative signal for a child-friendly society.” The amendment exempts certain children’s noise from the definition of “harmful environmental effects.” “Harmful environmental effects” are defined as “… any immissions which, because of their nature, extent, or duration, are likely to cause hazards, significant disadvantages, or significant nuisances to the general public or the neighborhood.” (Federal Immission Control Act, §3, para.1). “Immissions” are defined as “air pollution, noise, vibration, light, heat, radiation, and similar environmental effects (emissions) which affect human beings, animals and plants, the soil, the water, the atmosphere as well as cultural assets and other material goods.” (Id. §3, paras. 2 & 3). The amendment of the Federal Immission Control Act states that:

(1a) Noise which is emitted by children in day care centers, on playgrounds, or similar places like ball courts is generally not a harmful environmental effect. Immission limits and benchmarks shall not be used to evaluate the noise. (Translation by author).

The German government emphasized that children’s noise is subject to a special principle of tolerance from society. It stated that “noise from playing children is an expression of child development and blossoming and therefore has to be tolerated. Claims against it must be limited to rare individual cases.” By codifying that principle of tolerance, it is ensured that children’s noise is not considered a harmful environmental effect.

Children playing under the trees at Grand Val, a large estate near Paris, which has been converted into a country home for the delicate children among the refugees received from St. Sulpice near Paris. ARC. 1918 or 1919. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/anrc.02666.

Japan (by Sayuri Umeda)

Although Japanese have the highest life expectancy, Japan is an aging society with a low birth rate. Japan needs more babies, but the fertility rate of Japanese women in 2016 was 1.44 children per woman. Having effective countermeasures to the falling birthrate is an important mission for the Cabinet Office. The Cabinet Office publishes the Declining Birthrate White Paper every year. As part of a set of measures to ease hardships for parents of small children and future parents, the government plans to increase the number and quality of day care centers, kindergartens, and after-school facilities and programs. Because Japan has a shortage of day care centers, securing their openings is important.

Recently, it has become a big issue in Japan that openings of day care centers are significantly delayed or completely given up because of opposition from nearby residents. Noise nuisance from day care centers is one of biggest reasons for the opposition. In a recent case, Japan’s Supreme Court dismissed an appeal by a person who was not satisfied with the lower courts’ decisions that applied the general noise regulations to noises from a day care center and held that the noise level was within the limits. According to a law firm newsletter, the High Court emphasized the public’s need of the day care center when it evaluated whether the noises were socially acceptable. (The judgment was not published.)

Japanese people looked for a method to balance the protection of nearby residents and the needs of child care facilities and studied the above-mentioned German law. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government amended its ordinance to remove preschool children’s voices and sounds from activities such as singing and bouncing balls as a subject of noise regulations in 2015, emphasizing the need to promote small children’s development through play and activities.

So far, the National Diet (Japan’s parliament) has not planned to enact a similar law. In Japan, more people seem to favor solving this issue by establishing good communication between day care centers and neighbors, encouraging day care centers to limit loud noises, and asking neighbors to compromise.

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