Sensory studies arises at the conjuncture (and within) the fields of anthropology • sociology • history • archeology • geography • communications • religion • philosophy • literature • art history • museology • film • mixed media • performance • phenomenology • disability • aesthetics • architecture • urbanism • design

Sensory Studies can also be divided along sensory lines into, for example, visual culture, auditory culture (or sound studies), smell culture, taste culture and the culture of touch, not to mention the sixth sense (however it might be defined)

Pencil of the Sun: tracking the reverberations of military aircraft noise in Okinawa, Japan

Aircraft noise in Japan, as elsewhere, relates to economic and population growth and to the mechanics of aircraft design. It is also connected to the specific characteristics of hearing as a sense that cannot be closed down or separated from other bodily functions. These factors can act together to produce detrimental health outcomes and forms of social protest and resistance for those exposed to the long-term effects of aircraft noise. The conflict between concerns for the public sphere and the forces of economic progress, population expansion and mobility is based on the promise of controlling aircraft sound through certain measurements of scale and by the spatial character of interventions. The case of US military airbases located mostly on the island of Okinawa and built in the aftermath of the massive losses inflicted on Okinawa’s civilian population during the last land battle of the Pacific War reveal how aircraft noise may be constitutive of what has been called a ‘politics of frequency’ (Goodman, S. 2010, ‘Sonic Warfare’. MIT Press). For the residents of the village of Sunabe in Okinawa, who live under the flight paths of the US airbase at Kadena, the sounds of US military aircraft constitute their sense of place in historical time; that is, since the US airbase was built on land appropriated or forcibly leased by the Japanese government and the sense of time as a confluence of physical memories that are embedded in pathologies of the body. As the Kadena base is a centre for US military operations in East Asia and the Middle East, there is a sense in which the history of US foreign policy in the postwar period is literally written into the constitution of the bodies of those who live in its audible domain. For the residents of the village of Sunabe in Okinawa the relationship of military aircraft sound to the public sphere may be revealed through a comparison between the different sensorial forms of sociality it engenders ‘on-base’ and ‘off-base’. These recordings are presented here are designed to show how the relationship of aircraft sound to the public sphere and protest groups in the vicinity of Sunabe may be revealed firstly through a comparison with the forms of sociality, constructed around working with aircraft sound in the ‘on-base’ community. These recordings render the significance and meaning of aircraft sounds in terms of a relationship between their existence at a quantifiable level and at the level of experience. The recordings therefore aim to extend the debates in the anthropology of the senses by acknowledging but also questioning through media productions the emphasis on the patterned organisation of sensory experience.

Listening: x 4 tracks:
The four recordings assembled here are meant to be listened to one after the other, although in no particular order. They are not designed individually to hold the threads of the argument outlined above. It is in the intersections between these recordings – their sonic convergences and disjuncture – that they become affectively meaningful.

1. ‘The Giant Voice’
The public announcement system at Kadena airforce base (the biggest US airbase in Asia) is referred to by its personnel as ‘the giant voice’. It operates on a daily basis to play reveille in the morning and in the evening ‘taps’ with the national anthems of America and Japan (recorded here). It also plays public instructions during on-base exercises. This latter type of announcement is a source of concern and complaint for people who live around the base. The reveille is also a source of complaint for some military personnel whose living quarters are within earshot of the speaker systems and lately, in response to this issue, and to allow those personnel who have been on night shift to sleep well, the general has turned off the offending speakers.

2. Sunabe Beach side
The sound of aircraft turn the land and sea of Sunabe into mediums of sensory experience – which agitate the memory of past events and activate cultural beliefs in the space between the sea and the land. The area most affected by the noise of the aircraft based at Kadena is the community of Sunabe which translates as ‘sandy beach’. Before the airbase was built the beach was a famously beautiful feature of this coast line, it is now at the end of Kadena’s runway. This is the space of the ino or lagoon which is a practiced place for fishing and harvesting the products of the sea, where the vitality of the community is located. This recording is made from the beach side, mid-morning, at low-tide and features three F15 aircraft taking off. The volume levels recorded at this point exceed 120 decibels (levels above 70 decibels are acknowledged to be harmful to human hearing).
The movement, volume and depth of sound on this recording is a function of microphone and editing technology that accentuates features of the aircraft sound which may not be immediately obvious to a first time listener. These features – the way that the approaching aircraft initially sounds like the sucking hollow of a wave from the beach, the sudden, violent, crackling increase of sonic energy and how the roar hangs in the air for two or three minutes after the aircraft has passed – can reveal the in-distinction between the measurable tracks of the aircraft’s sonic movement and the auditory consciousness of a listener in place.

3. Sunabe kominkan roof
The sounds of aircraft taking off and landing from Kadena is the most distinctive but not the only way that aircraft sound manifests itself in the aural life of residents in Sunabe. The second recording here is of Harrier jets flown by marine pilots and is less voluminous and sudden than the first recording but is indicative of the pervasive and residual nature of aircraft sound in Sunabe. This is because the marine pilots who fly these jets are always on short term attachments, do not know the proper flight paths and make their Harriers hover over the neighbourhood. The recording is made from the kominkan or ‘community centre’ in Sunabe and is the point from which most of the sound level meter readings, monitoring the volume of aircraft overflying the area have been recorded.

4. Sunabe Eisa
Eisa is the term for an annual summer festival of song and dance that is performed by groups comprised of community members and celebrates local diversity and Okinawan identity. This recording features the Sunabe Eisa group performing one evening among the streets beside the Sunabe sea wall. This area is now dominated by surfing and diving shops and a rapidly increasing number of residences of US military personnel; reflecting a demographic trend that is leading to the steady disappearance of Sunabe’s pre-war population.

The recordings were made from a fixed point, using a Sound Devices, 702 two channel recorder with a Sound Devices 302 mixer. The microphone was a Pearl M&S MSH 10.
Editing was done on Adobe Audition, but besides a fade in and out, there have been no changes made to the recordings.

Bibliography / Phonography
1. Sound of One hand Clapping(2006) : the sonic effects of the material environment of a Zen temple in a neighbourhood of Kyoto city, Japan.
Archived at:

2. ‘Sounds of freedom’. (2010) Sound recording accompanying above article ‘Sound of Freedom’: the political ecology of military aircraft noise in Okinawa.’ In Anthropology News. American Anthropological Association. December, Vol 51.

3. 2008. ‘Wandering without purpose: auditory journeys through History and Memory in Nagasaki’. Special issue of Journeys: The Map is not the territory, Mind, Body and Imagination as Globally Human. ed. by Andrew Irving.

4. (with K Hiramatsu) 2010. ‘Sounding Out Indigenous Identities in Okinawa Japan’. In Anthropology and Indigenous Studies: Learning from a Long encounter. ed J Hendry & L Fitznor. Berghahn Press.

Biographical information: I received my MA and PhD in Social Anthropology from the University of Edinburgh, finishing in 1998. I have been lecturer in Visual Anthropology at the University of Manchester since 2002. Major publications include The Zen Arts: An Anthropological Study of the Culture of Aesthetic Form in Japan (Routledge, 2003) and The Culture of Copying in Japan: cultural and historical perspectives (Routledge, 2007, edited volume). I have two current research projects which address issues of sound in the environment and use sound recordings as a research methodology:
Research Project 1: Sounds of Freedom: an ethnographic and comparative historical study of the effects of aircraft noise from US military bases in Okinawa, Japan. Funded by Japan Society for the Promotion of Science Senior Invitational Fellowship (2007) & British Academy Small Research Grant (2009).

Research Project 2. Air Pressure: aircraft noise and perceptions of the environment. (a collaboration with two acoustic scientists –Professors Hiramatsu and Matsui of Kyoto University and the artist Angus Carlyle, supported by a Wellcome Arts Trust Award :