But despite a rapid decline in the number of children, there has been a surge in complaints about noise from parks and kindergartens, forcing the city to consider a change in the law.
Tokyo’s problem reflects an added difficulty of turning round a low birth rate and making it easier for Japanese women to work, as the increasingly elderly population becomes hostile to facilities for children.
“In the past this wasn’t an issue but recently more people have been complaining to city halls, saying ‘the children are too loud, please stop them’,” says Yukie Nogami, chairwoman of Tokyo’s environment and construction subcommittee. “The law says city halls have to act.”
Ms Nogami’s committee will soon debate a proposal to carve out an exemption from the noise rules, either for children under 12 or for certain places such as parks and kindergartens.
About two-thirds of respondents to a consultation support the change but a minority is strongly against, complaining about everything from the lax upbringing of modern children to the effect on property prices.
“Children’s voices should certainly be covered by noise regulations,” says one respondent. “Nearby people suffer . . . it’s a big problem. Land values fall so it’s a violation of property rights.”
“Carefree play does not mean children should be allowed to make noise without thinking,” says another. “Children should be taught to speak and sing at an appropriate volume, and age four is old enough to understand that.”
Prime minister Shinzo Abe’s government wants to raise Japan’s fertility rate, which at 1.4 births per woman is among the lowest in the world. The population is ageing rapidly and has started to shrink. Mr Abe also wants to boost the economy by encouraging female participation in the workforce.
One problem is a chronic shortage of day care, with more than 40,000 children stuck on waiting lists. The Abe government has promised to create 400,000 new day care spaces nationwide by 2018.
Carefree play does not mean children should be allowed to make noise without thinking. Children should be taught to speak and sing at an appropriate volume, and age four is old enough to understand that
- Consultation respondent
But a backlash against children’s noise has led to local campaigns against new nurseries and day care centres. Changing the noise rules may make it easier to open kindergartens in Tokyo without expensive soundproofing.
Many respondents to the survey back the change and it is likely to become law. “I totally support it,” says one. “To play and cry and make a big noise is a child’s right.”
“I agree with the city’s plan,” says another. “To treat children’s voices like the noise from a machine is outrageous.”
Regardless of the noise rules, however, the attitudes towards children revealed by the debate will be harder to reverse.