Commentary: In Japan, the old are harassing the young

Commentary: In Japan, the old are harassing the young

Rougai, a term meaning an annoying old person, reflects Japan's ageing population woes keenly felt by the young, says the Financial Times' Leo Lewis.

rougai elderly japan
An elderly in Japan appears in a viral video preventing the door of a packed Nagoya commuter train from closing. (Photo: Youtube Screengrab)

TOKYO: A minute or two of newly shot mobile phone video captures an elderly man repeatedly and, it seems, deliberately, preventing the door of a packed Nagoya commuter train from closing. It has, of course, gone viral.

The footage, co-starring flustered station staff and passengers at the end of their tethers, is exquisite theatre. 

Nine times, the train’s steel doors bid for closure. Nine times they are thwarted by aged flesh and mischief. The seconds tick by; the natural order of things is challenged; Japan’s famed punctuality is punctured.

The incident and its background are unimportant. But what stands out is the belligerent conclusion the video’s online audience quickly reached. This was, the masses decided, yet another case of rougai — the harm inflicted on Japan by its elderly. 



The word, still lacking consensus on the parameters of its meaning, has been skulking around the national vocab for a few years now. There is more to rougai than demographic concerns about an ageing population. 

Those big, serious questions over whether Japan’s welfare systems and economy can adapt to its challenging demographics, or how elderly care will burden what remains of the labour force, have been prominent and perplexing for many years. 

Rougai, meanwhile, is more granular: For some, it simply means “an annoying old person”.

READ: Twin solutions to Asia’s demographic problems, a commentary

A couple of books have tried to define the issue and positioned rougai as a series of micro-irritations and obstacles inflicted on working-age Japanese. But its usage has accelerated in recent months through repetition online and the way it handily encapsulates multiple problems.

Rougai, in the various mouths of its users, can be the stubborn idiocy of a senior executive who cannot use a computer but decries younger staff as inferior to previous generations. 

It is shoplifting sprees by retirees. It is superannuated politicians. It is elderly women hectoring young mothers in the street with unsolicited child-rearing advice. 

It is a snaking queue of septuagenarians dithering over touchscreen ticket machines. It is 90-year-olds causing pile-ups by driving their cars the wrong way up motorways.

Japan elderly
File photo pf elderly people taking a rest on benches in Tokyo. (Photo: AFP/Yoshikazu Tsuno)

READ: Lessons in living from the world’s oldest country, a commentary

When one major business magazine produced a top-10 list of rougai irritations in the workplace, it was topped by “the way old people always say they are right about everything”. 

Another defined it in terms of the competitive drag suffered by so many Japanese companies whose elderly leaders refuse to step aside. Rougai has become the go-to gripe when Japan’s old strike the young as infuriating, intractable and intolerable.


Generational friction is nothing new to humanity, nor special to Japan, but rougai seems to reflect a Japan-specific feeling that the young are being outnumbered by the old. 

Government figures, the latest slew of which were released this month, confirm that exasperation. A fifth of the population is now aged over 70, a third is over 60 and the direction of travel cannot be offset. 

At the same time, most of the tensions created by rougai tend not to be socially explosive. Respect for the elderly, whether by instinct or habit, generally ensures that its many manifestations are suffered in silence, pity or with an awkward laugh.

So how genuine is the rougai howl of age rage?


The lightning speed at which the Nagoya train door drama was both uploaded to social media and defined as rougai is instructive. 

YouTube and other video-sharing sites are now groaning repositories for footage of elderly Japanese being awful, dangerous, or causing featherweight mayhem in public places, all searchable under rougai.

The internet is extremely efficient at assembling these encyclopedias of outrage and convincing viewers that the blight is both widespread and pernicious. 

Japan, for its part, has a noble record when it comes to bashing-out a good neologism and encouraging people to see examples of it everywhere.

READ: Most Japanese think their country’s best days are behind them, a commentary

People look at their mobile phones while waiting for a train at a subway station in Tokyo
People look at their mobile phones while waiting for a train at a subway station in Tokyo, Japan, October 14, 2015. REUTERS/Yuya Shino/Files

There is no doubt that the country’s demographics will confront its society with an ever more irritating, complex and saddening list of problems. 

The burden of this will be immense and will surely fall most heavily on the generation that has shared and bemoaned the footage of the Nagoya door-stopper. 

They know what trouble is coming; at least they have granted themselves the empowerment that comes with giving it a name.

Source: Financial Times/nr(sl)