Reversing Age

What is Japan’s ‘No Meiwaku’ Mentality?

The Japanese cultural norm of 'no meiwaku', which states that one should not bother others, shapes social attitudes and way of living that enable older people to age with purpose, dignity and independence. This mindset promotes intergenerational support, active participation in family and community, and self-esteem into old age.

Author

Alex H. Boukhari

Happy grandfather and granddaughters enjoying a beach sunset, exemplifying Japan's 'No Meiwaku' mentality promoting independence and intergenerational harmony.

In a crowded Tokyo underground, 70-year-old Sato (a fictive name) stands quietly as the train travels to its destination. Although seats are scarce, he does not complain or ask anyone to move for him. Sato knows the Japanese cultural value of ‘no meiwaku’ – not causing trouble for others. This mindset, which is deeply rooted in Japanese society, has profound implications for the country with the highest life expectancy in the world. As Japan faces an ‘ageing’ population, the ‘no meiwaku’ mentality helps to facilitate an ageing process that is characterised by independence, dignity and mutual support.

The no meiwaku concept means not behaving in a way that burdens or disturbs others and shapes the social interactions and attitudes of the Japanese public.

Among the older generations, this manifests itself in a collective unwillingness to become a burden on the family or the state as they grow older. This can be seen in everyday behaviour – from Sato, who remains silent on his morning commute to work, to older people who work well past retirement age to avoid having to rely on others.

The no meiwaku mentality contrasts with perceptions in many Western societies that older people are frail, dependent and burdensome. Dr Yumiko Kouta of the University of Tokyo notes that in Japan, “it is still shameful to be a burden on others”, a cultural pressure reflected in the fact that relatively few Japanese over 65 require nursing home care. No meiwaku culture also supports a widespread post-retirement employment culture. More than 60% of Japanese over 65 remain in the labour force and are seen as active, valuable members of society.

The no meiwaku concept extends beyond the public sphere to family relationships and home life. Adult children often organise their family homes to accommodate their elderly parents instead of placing them in care facilities. In multi-generational households, the elderly actively contribute to housework, childcare and the passing on of cultural knowledge.

This interdependent, symbiotic family structure contrasts with the more individualistic Western models. Japanology TV episode ‘Active Seniors’ explores the meaning and identity that seniors discover when they remain active into old age. An 88-year-old programmer and a 104-year-old watch repairer show how older people can maintain a sense of purpose, self-worth and intergenerational continuity through their work, hobbies and teaching traditional arts.

In addition to shaping social attitudes, communal way of living enable well-being and independence for Japan’s older generations. The traditional Japanese diet of fish, rice, vegetables and green tea promotes health and longevity. Close-knit, intergenerational communities allow older citizens to remain in their own homes for as long as possible, with family members and neighbours providing social contact and support with daily tasks.

Public and private initiatives also promote active ageing through continuous learning, community exercise groups and intergenerational knowledge-sharing ‘salons’. Kouta observes that seniors attend these programmes not only because they want to improve their well-being, but also because they want to remain useful in some way.

After all, being useful is what matters most, especially as we grow older.

The no meiwaku mentality, which avoids relying on others, continues into old age in Japan and enables a sense of purpose and self-worth. For example, small roadside places such as rest areas (Michi-no-Eki) and informal gardens are common in Japanese communities. Even if they are not specifically targeted at seniors, the maintenance of such spaces through gardening and volunteers fosters local social relationships.

Programmes that involve seniors in the maintenance of roadside greenery, fruit and vegetable stands or community gardens could provide physical activity, social interaction and satisfaction by improving the neighbourhood.

The basis for such community initiatives is the traditional Japanese concept of ikigai – the meaning of one’s life. Maintaining ikigai and contributing to society, whether through paid work, volunteering or passing on wisdom to younger generations, is seen as crucial to a healthy long life.

Japan’s approach to ageing is in stark contrast to the view in many Western countries that older people are an economic burden. A well-known Japanese proverb says:

“Only staying active will make you want to live a hundred years.”

Japanese Proverb

Staying active has been proven to be a positive factor for older people. The elderly in Japan try to make the most of their daily lives and fill their days with activities. This normality of ageing as an active phase of life is made possible by the community infrastructure and an attitude that promotes independence, dignity and mutual support. 

In Western societies, demographic change means that the number of seniors in need of care is growing. Yet most Western healthcare systems are centred on a hospital-based, curative system rather than prevention or living well.

The Japanese model, based on the no meiwaku concept, offers lessons for ageing societies around the world. It emphasises the crucial role of lifestyle, infrastructure and cultural attitudes in well-being. As Sato’s train reaches its stop, he bows slightly to his fellow travellers before disembarking – a small gesture of respect that embodies the no meiwaku mentality of each generation accommodating the others rather than causing them difficulties.

In Japan’s ageing society, silence speak volumes about mutual care and respect between generations. They signal an ageing process that, while still imperfect, preserves human dignity and purpose to the end of life’s journey. For societies facing demographic change, it is worth learning from Japan.

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