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Meiwaku: The Threat to Japanese Harmony

Last month, a Japanese website raised criticism: its principle was that users could submit meiwaku noise information about their neighborhood. Most of the time, users complained about the sounds of children playing, and the word “meiwaku” was heavily used in the comments.

“Meiwaku” can be translated in several ways: trouble, annoyance, annoying. In Japanese, spam mail is called meiwaku mail, and the same term applies to spam phone calls. The word’s meaning is strong, and I believe “nuisance” is probably the closest word in English for meiwaku.

Even if people’s behaviors have become more individualistic, especially in big cities, a major aspect of Japanese culture is that the group comes before the individual. Harmony inside the group, and society in general, should be maintained as much as possible. This leads to nice and enjoyable practices such as exchanging gifts with your neighbors to maintain good relationships. However, this can also be a difficulty, especially as a foreigner, when you want to express your individuality without breaking the harmony. And one of the worst things you could do to break the harmony is to be, or to cause, meiwaku. It is also one of the worst things you can be called without it being a dirty word; it means your counterpart is really angry and you have repeatedly made major harmony-breaking mistakes.

Avoiding causing meiwaku to others is one of the bases of Japanese politeness in public spaces: you should not disturb others. For example, Japanese people refrain from talking too loud or talking on the phone on public transport. Blasting music on your phone in public places, something I have witnessed in France or in the U.S., is unthinkable in Japan. Even putting music too loud in your earphones, so much that it can be heard by other people, is frowned upon (there is even a word for this: otomore, or “sound leak”). 

A Japanese man is talking on the phone in the train. He his half-covering his mouth with his hand.
“Sorry, I’m on the train, may I call you back later?” Notice how the man covers his mouth with his hand: more than an efficient system to reduce noise, it is a gesture to signal others he is conscious of the meiwaku he is causing by talking.

In Japanese companies, it means working diligently and making sure not to impair the work of others or cause them to work more. This is one of the reasons why many Japanese people are hesitant to take the few paid leaves they have: by taking holidays, you force your colleagues to work more while you are away, hence causing meiwaku. 

In your neighborhood, it means, for example, that you should not park your car or your bike in unrequested places. Mostly, you should be careful about trash sorting and putting the trash at the correct location, on the correct days and time. We have all heard stories of foreign residents at a loss with the Japanese trash collection system, or who make the mistake of not considering it a big deal, and who quickly become categorized as meiwaku by severe neighbors. Elderly people, especially, have a reputation for being on the lookout for this kind of neighborhood meiwaku. Some would say they have too much free time on their hands, which may be true, but I think that elderly people are probably more attached to core values, and may feel a sense of responsibility for their neighborhood’s harmony. 

Like in the example in the opening of this column, noise is considered a major type of neighborhood meiwaku. That is why most landlords in Japan forbid tenants to have pets, or in certain cases, even refuse families with children! 

Avoiding meiwaku is originally a positive concept, and it surely helps maintain a generally peaceful, clean-looking, and quiet atmosphere. I personally believe that it is one of the reasons why Japanese people quickly and massively adopted the wearing of masks during the pandemic, even though it was never compulsory. 

However, like all things, the concept can become poison if used excessively. Considering the presence of children a nuisance so much as to complain about daycare centers, or refraining from taking one’s holidays, does not appear to me as a positive thing for any society in the long term. 

From a foreigner’s point of view, avoiding meiwaku can be difficult to deal with at first, especially if you come from a more individualistic culture. Still, if you wish to feel integrated into your new environment and avoid interpersonal relationship troubles, it is key to stick with the major rules. Navigating the rules of Japan can be tricky, and you will make mistakes, but the most important is to show your willingness to learn.

Born in France, I've been living in Japan since 2011. I'm curious about everything, and living in Japan has allowed me to expand my vision of the world through a broad range of new activities, experiences, and encounters. As a writer, what I love most is listening to people's personal stories and share them with our readers.


  • Johan

    March 11, 2021 at 1:53 PM

    Great article, thanks Amélie! I’m curious: How about music being played in homes or apartments for lessons or individual practicing? For example, if someone is a trumpet player, and they are practicing in their home and the sound can be heard by nearby neighbors, would that be considered meiwaku too?

    • Amélie Geeraert

      March 11, 2021 at 4:16 PM

      Dear Johan, thank you very much for your comment. This is an excellent question! You may be surprised to know that, as for pets, the use of musical instruments is often forbidden in rental apartments. For example, I live in a place in which I am not allowed to make music. I suspect that may be one of the reasons why in the past, I have seen people practicing instruments like the trumpet in parks in Tokyo. Rental music studios are also easy to find in big cities. If you are living in your own house, however, I think nobody can blame you for practicing as long as you do it during decent hours of the day. I have heard some of my neighbors practicing the drums or piano.

  • Rebecca

    May 20, 2021 at 11:35 AM

    Nice article! Everything you say is absolutely spot on. It’s true that there are good intentions behind the attention to preventing meiwaku, but as you mentioned it can be taken too far.
    I will tell you a funny story. My roommate who is Japanese said she actually gave gifts to everyone in the bulding when she first moved in, only to have a lady from the first floor come knock on the door to return the gift that was left on her doorhandle saying she felt ‘komaru’. Seems like some things that started off as a gesture to say sorry have turned in to meiwaku for some. I guess that’s where the word ‘arigata meiwaku’ comes from.

    • Amélie Geeraert

      May 20, 2021 at 2:53 PM

      Hi Rebecca, thank you very much for your comment! I’m glad you liked the article and agree with it.
      Thanks also for sharing your funny anecdote! My guess is the lady from the first floor did not want to have to return a gift in return for your roommate’s gift. A good example of ‘arigata meiwaku’ indeed! I did not include that concept in the article by fear of complicating things, but your anecdote is making me want to write a follow-up about it!

  • Playbahnosh

    December 13, 2021 at 12:01 PM

    Really nice article! However, a point to add, is that meiwaku is not only cultural, but also a practical issue. Population density in Japanese cities in general is several times higher than in most western countries. Living space is at a premium, a lot more people are packed into lot smaller living arrangements, and that can cause quite the friction between tenants. Not only that, but Japanese architecture is not helping either, since especially older apartment buildings and homes have absolutely no insulation. The walls are (almost literally) paper thin, you can hear even normal conversation in the apartment over, let alone TV/music, etc. This is why being extra considerate and avoiding meiwaku is not just common courtesy, but a strong necessity to preserve the peace – and the sanity – of everyone involved. Of course, with a system like this, there’s inadvertently going to be some overcompensation, but the result is still society that’s a lot more considerate and harmonious than most (even if it’s inconvenient and forced to the individual some degree).