The Soundscapes of East Asian Cities

In his work, ‘Sounds of the City: The Soundscapes of early modern European towns’, Garrioch examines the formation of a semiotic system in early modern towns, arguing that the system was useful for conveying news and ‘helping people to locate themselves in time and in space’.[1] Although this auditory system was gradually eclipsed by modern modes of information, it was nonetheless an important and underexplored historical phenomenon. Garrioch cites the noise of horses, street vendors and church bells as vital examples of the semiotic system that helped townsfolk in the Early modern period to locate themselves within a city. However, how would these soundscapes compare to that of an East Asian city like Tokyo?


Analysis of the soundscapes of East Asian cities has already been undertaken by a number of scholars many of which arguably point out a number of similarities between East Asian cities and those in the west.[2] In fact, a number of the points raised by Garrioch are equally applicable to the soundscapes of East Asian cities. In terms of the sounds of the street it is fair to argue that very little can be differentiated between the early modern East Asian city and that of its counterpart in Europe. In Europe market days were distinguished not by a single sound, but by a conjunction of noises indicating unusual levels of commercial activity. Examination of the Woodblock print, Night view of Saruwaka Street arguably indicates the noises and soundscape expected from a bustling street in historic Tokyo.[3] As in Europe it is likely that the vendors situated in the street selling food, had achieved a ‘high level of audibility’.[4] Furthermore, in European cities the lack of noise was equally informative as noise within the semiotic system. In Europe, silence was closely associated with both secular and religious power in the form of court rooms, which conveyed authority, or churches in which silence was expected as a matter of respect.[5] Like churches, temples in East Asia were often places of quiet for better facilitate reflection and meditation in a manner not dissimilar to churches. In this regards, the ability to produce or demand silence was a privilege of authority and another similarity in the soundscapes of both Europe and East Asia.


It is also likely that, with the rapid modernisation of Japan, this soundscape likely became eclipsed in a manner not dissimilar to in Western European cities. The short educational film Children of Japan from 1941 shows the extent to which the traditional Japanese soundscape had been largely eclipsed[6]. Bustling streets in the film show pedestrians, cars and cyclists in western attire as well as trams and trains in the new cityscape. Although the vendors still exist, it is clear that this semiotic system has been largely been replaced by modern technologies. Although it is not possible to find out exactly what an east Asian soundscape would be, it is likely that in many instances it shared key similarities with its western equivalents and was also eclipsed with the advent of new technology.

[1] David, Garrioch, ‘Sounds of the city: the soundscape of early modern European towns’ in Urban History, Volume 30, Issue 1, May 2003, p5.

[2] Freek, Colombijn, ‘Toooot! Vrooom! The Urban Soundscape of Indonesia’, Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia, Vol. 22, No. 2 (October 2007), p255.

[3] Utagawa Hiroshige, ‘The Night view of Saruwaka Street’ <—FROM/8BDCCCABCF350172> [Accessed 11/12/19].

[4] Garrioch, ‘sounds of the city’, p8

[5] Ibid, p13.

[6] Children of Japan, ERPI Classroom Films, Inc.

<> [Accessed 11/12/19].


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