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"Don't Cause Trouble (Meiwaku) to Others"

By far the most important norm at Fuji-no-Sato was the need to avoid imposing on others' comfort and freedom. This was usually expressed as the avoidance of "causing meiwaku "—a concept that is difficult to translate but overlaps the ideas of "trouble," "annoyance," "bother," "nuisance," and "inconvenience." This idea is probably familiar in all cultures in one form or another, but it had acquired special significance at Fuji-no-Sato, to the extent that it seemed to color almost every act of at least some of the residents.

The Japanese tend to use meiwaku as a gauge of the closeness of relationships. The closer or more intimate two people are, the more they can expect of each other, and thus the less likely a given act is to be classified as meiwaku . Put otherwise, a given request may cause meiwaku if asked of someone at the outer edge of level two, but not of someone in level one. The objective magnitude of the request is of course also relevant, so there are some things one cannot ask even a relative to do.

In general, though, the concern over causing meiwaku is characteristic of second-level relationships. Where one cannot expect a high tolerance for dependency, yet where there is enough of a relationship that the other would have difficulty simply refusing a favor, one must strive to assess accurately the amount of meiwaku in a request before making it. If there is danger one has exceeded the limit, one is likely to add to the request meiwaku o kakete, sumimasen (I'm sorry I'm causing you [this] trouble). Conversely, one should not be over concerned with causing meiwaku to intimates for fear of being accused of overformal (mizu-kusai ) behavior.

Those familiar with Takeo Doi's writings on dependency in Japan will notice that there is great overlap between indulgence in amae (dependency behavior) and in causing meiwaku when the meiwaku is a request for self-gratification. In this case, meiwaku o kakete sumimasen is almost synonymous with gokoi ni amae sasete itadakimasu (I will indulge myself in your kindness). There are strict limits on the range of situations in which one may get away with a mere apology of this kind.


The central significance of the meiwaku norm at Fuji-no-Sato can be explained on the basis of the unusual role of dependency in the residents' life-styles. Briefly, most of these people seemed to have been unusually independent throughout their lives, the decision to come to this community was itself a statement of this independence, and the maintenance of an appearance of self-sufficiency was crucial to residents' self-esteem. We examine this analysis beginning with two examples.

First, as we mentioned in Chapter 7, many residents answered the question about their motives for moving to Fuji-no-Sato by saying, "In order not to cause meiwaku to our children (daughters-in-law, siblings, etc.)." The degree of apparent meiwaku avoided in this way varied according to the family situation, so some residents could have elected the traditional three-generation living arrangement (still a widely accepted level of meiwaku ), but others would have had to depend on other kin (less acceptable). In any case, the residents' ability to choose a low-meiwaku alternative, living at Fuji-no-Sato, apparently gave them a profound sense of control over their own fate.

Second, one of the hobby groups was studying yokyoku —traditional songs accompanied by the shamisen . When one of the group reported that her neighbor had complained about the noise of her home practice, the entire group immediately voted to give up home practice altogether in order to avoid possible widespread meiwaku . They did not ask their own neighbors how they felt about the practicing or suggest that practicing could be done carefully. The report of the single member engendered the assumption that all their neighbors may have been enduring unacceptable meiwaku and that this was a chance the students dared not take. This was, in effect, a kind of self-meiwaku because the group had access to the community center only one day a week, and their homes were the only other place they could practice. Their behavior, though, was typical here.

This analysis seems to fly in the face of the American belief that Japan is a society that encourages dependency, especially in the aged; but we are not really suggesting that dependency in general was mistrusted by our residents. Rather, Americans tend automatically to link particular kinds of behavior with particular moral attitudes; and when they do not find a particular behavior associated with the expected valuation, they assume they have found a reversal


of the Western set. As Margaret Clark (1969) puts it, in studying other cultures, we must conceptually separate dependent behavior and the evaluation attached to it.

Japanese values are not a mirror image of American with regard to dependency. The Japanese elderly are not mysteriously permitted the very things American elderly are denied. True, there are forms of interdependency accepted in Japan that are rejected in America, but this does not mean the Japanese elderly enjoy a blissful irresponsibility vis-à-vis their children. Meiwaku upon children is better avoided if possible, just as is meiwaku upon anyone else. Dependency is more easily accepted when it is inevitable, not when it clearly can be avoided.

Consider the famous group centeredness of the Japanese in this context. The quality of interpersonal relationships has an unusually high priority in their value system, but this quality depends on mutual concern. The fact that one realistically can depend on one's children when necessary does not change the importance of one's concern for their well-being. As an objective measure of this, we offer three statistics: (1) About the same percentage of Japanese (44 percent) and Americans (42 percent) over sixty say they need to work for money. (2) Of the Japanese elderly, 39 percent, versus 24 percent of the Americans, work. (3) Although only 14 percent of working older Americans say they feel obligated to work, 38 percent of working Japanese elderly say this (Prime Minister's Office, 1982:117-119).

Given these observations about the structure of dependency in Japan, our analysis of the meiwaku norm makes sense. The fact that the residents at Fuji-no-Sato were able to live largely without first-level relationships shows that they had achieved a remarkable degree of independence for people their age. This achievement was not motivated, as it might be in the West, by a high priority on independence itself—mutual interdependence is still a yardstick of value in interpersonal relations—but because it allowed them to avoid causing meiwaku . This value was purchased at considerable cost to themselves, and it would simply be inconsistent for them to tolerate high levels of mutual expectation—high tolerance for meiwaku , if you will—in their new community.

Whether this preference for self-sufficiency grew out of innate character traits or was imposed by circumstances is difficult to say for most residents, but we believe it was the latter for the childless


and those who had never married, especially women. Given that a family life, centered on raising children, is the prototype of intimacy among the Japanese, the absence of it from one's experience probably results in the development of habits of autonomy. Granted, there were individuals at Fuji-no-Sato whose past lives reflected more normative patterns of dependency, but the prevalence of self-sufficient types among the residents was enough to produce this extreme emphasis on the collective ethic of "no meiwaku ."

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