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Rogai: When the Elderly Give Headaches to Japanese Society

After my article about the Japanese generation Z, this time, I would like to write about a phenomenon that concerns the Japanese elderly: rogai. This Japanese word applies to elderly people who create trouble in their surroundings. However, as often in Japanese culture, it has several levels of meaning.

The Original Meaning of Rogai

In Japanese, the word rogai is a neologism written with the characters for “old” [老] and “damage” [害]. 

Elderly people complaining about the young, and the young complaining about the elderly is probably a universal phenomenon. However, Japanese culture is influenced by Confucianism, especially the fact that younger members of the society owe respect to their elders. In September, Japan even has a holiday called “Respect for the Aged Day” [Keiro no Hi]. In such a context, how did the derogatory term “rogai” appear?

Originally, it was used to qualify “real” damage caused to society by elderly people. In Japan, a third of the population is now over 60 years old. The aging of the population has been the cause for repeated accidents and crimes that have been heavily covered in the Japanese media.

Among them, we find traffic accidents caused by elderly drivers: people taking the highway on the wrong side, crashing into buildings, and killing people. Although studies show that younger drivers actually are more dangerous, old people are perceived as potential dangers on the road, forcing Japan to think about specific ways to handle them.

Another problem is what Japan calls “grey crimes.” Most of the time, these crimes are thefts or shoplifting. Pensions are not always very good in Japan, forcing elderly people to keep working part-time after retirement, or finding other means to survive (something I have evoked here before.) So, some of the thefts are driven by necessity. However, other thefts are driven by loneliness: bored and alone, some elderly people use that to attract attention.

Hands of an elderly person are closing a bagpack
Japan has seen a surge in shoplifting done by elderly people.

Annoying Old People

With time, the term’s meaning has extended to qualify all old people who cause trouble and annoyance to their surroundings, willingly or not. Most of the time, the word is not used directly in front of the other person as an insult, but later when complaining about the incident, and is especially heavily used online.

A very good example of this is the following video that went viral in 2019. It shows an old man on a train in the city of Nagoya, who prevents the doors from closing properly nine times. Notice how, out of respect, the surrounding passengers do not dare say or do anything (although one almost does), even when they are visibly annoyed. The little comedy ends only when a senior staff member of the station asks the old man to stop. On the internet, a lot of Japanese commenters qualified the incident as “another case of rogai.”

But, why?

Other typical, everyday life rogai is usually based on elderly people lacking patience, getting angry easily, and refusing to accept the obvious on the sole basis that it displeases them. That means complaining and shouting about nothing at shop staff, giving strangers unsolicited advice, or making ill-intended comments, etc. 

Most of the time, victims have no choice but try to stay respectful and suffer in silence.

Rogai at Work

As I wrote before in my generation Z article, work is very important in Japanese culture and the workplace is where generations clash the most. So, of course, the term is also applied in this context. 

Imposing your own values on younger people is another characteristic of rogai. To caricature just a bit, the typical rogai seniors at work cannot use and do not want to use new technologies, always dismiss suggestions from younger employees, complain about the younger generations not working hard enough, and keep boasting about their experience and how “things were better before.” 

An older businessman is lecturing a woman working on her computer
“When I was younger, I did not need such online tools to be efficient.”

At work, the word is used without discrimination based on age. Some business websites warn that no matter your age if you are older than the young recruits and act the way listed above, chances are you will be called “rogai” anyway (behind your back.)

Rogai on the National Level

Since in Japan, again due to Confucianism, aging is a way to rise up the hierarchical ladder, political leaders of Japan and other important officials are part of the aged or very aged population. During the last few years, gaffes and other fatal mistakes from older politicians were classified as “rogai” online, and the younger population is not willing to forgive them as they used to, especially since some of them were also covered by foreign media, damaging the international image of Japan. Here are a few examples:

  • In 2018, Yoshitaka Sakurada (71 years old at the time of writing), was Cybersecurity Minister and surprised the whole country when publicly admitting he did not own and had never used a computer. In 2019, then Olympics Minister, he said he was “disappointed” because a Japanese swimmer had just been diagnosed with leukemia. Finally, later that same year, he offended the people of Tohoku who had been hit by the tsunami in 2011 by implying that funding for recovery was not that important compared to the local political game, and was forced to resign.
A man dressed in a suit is speaking in a microphone
  • In August 2021, TV commentator Isao Harimoto (81 years old at the time of writing) commented on boxing athlete Sena Irie’s win for gold with sexist remarks implying that women should not do boxing, and that liking to watch it is weird. Sena Irie and other boxing officials immediately protested.

For many Japanese, this rogai kind of attitude is one of the reasons why Japanese companies nowadays innovate less than they used to. Gaffes like the ones listed above used to be forgiven by the general public, but times are slowly changing

Although like all terms, people may use the word “rogai” too quickly or out of context, its existence shows that Japanese people are now looking for respect and harmony from all the members of its society, without exceptions based on age.

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.

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