Meiwaku is a Japanese word that has a nebulous definition. It approaches the English word 'inconvenience' in meaning but it
encompasses a much greater range of ideas. Most simply put, it's
anything that causes trouble or shame for other members of the groups
you belong to. Each person has the right to take pride in the
reputation of their group but at the same time has a responsibility
to maintain that reputation.
The core of meiwaku is the idea of group membership. Everyone is defined by the groups they are a part of: the neighborhood
you live in, the school you graduated from, and even the company you
work for. If you bring dishonor to or hurt the reputation of the groups
you're in, it reflects on the whole group. Because of this, there's a
huge amount of self-policing and peer pressure within groups to conform
to the standards of the group and of society.
Meiwaku range from walking in late to a meeting to executives
embezzling funds from their company or accepting bribes to car
crashes. The only way to atone for these meiwaku is to
apologize profusely in an overly melodramatic fashion by western standards: "I deeply,
deeply, regret that a person of my wretched status inflicted a meiwaku on
my esteemed fellow members." Another example of these apologies are
the yearly statements released by the Japanese government on December 7, apologizing to the Japanese people for
the great meiwaku they committed in 1941. You don't even have to know the person to have a meiwaku inflicted
on you. Say you work for a large company, for example Enron. It's
discovered that several executives have been embezzling funds from the
company. Even though you have never met the executives or even know
who they are, they have committed an atrocious meiwaku on every employee of the company.
The whole concept of meiwaku is meant to preserve the wa; 和. Wa
is the Japanese word for "peace" or "harmony" and represents the
absence of conflict. Everyone can accept that social harmony is
preferable to individualistic anarchy but in the United States, social
harmony usually is balanced against the right of an individual to make
their own choices. In Japan, however, wa wins out nearly every time; people having more loyalty to the harmony of the group than to their own interests. In fact, wa itself is frequently not only a means but a goal in and of itself for society. By minimizing and apologizing for meiwaku, both accidental and intentional, that are committed, people create a state of wa.