In the current article, I would like to talk about the importance of apologizing in Japan. When people compare Japan with the west, many people often point out such clichés as conformity vs. individuality, quiet dispositions vs. more boisterous dispositions, humility vs. pride, and the like. There is an element of truth to all of these, however, and to add an additional cliché to the pile, allow me to briefly talk about the prevalence and importance of apologizing in Japan.
The Ubiquity of Apologizing in Japan
Linguistically, the amount of apologizing one does in the Japanese language is astounding. When you give someone a gift, you apologize for said present being simple, when you ask for the attention of shop staff, you scream “excuse me” or “I’m sorry,” when you speak on the phone, you almost always start with an apology, when you start to say anything critical, you preface this with an apology… in almost every social situation, you begin with an apology. This is not simply a linguistic quirk: in many practical matters in Japanese society, apologizing can quite literally be the difference between life and death. A major matter that determines whether or not a murderer is sentenced to the death penalty is how sincere his apology is (kaishun wo miseru In Japanese). I’m not joking about this either. When determining whether to sentence a murderer to death or not, judges consider things such as “did he (or she) apologize for his (her) actions?” “did he (or she) offer monetary compensation to the victim’s family?” “did he (or she) cry?” did he (or she) offer to burn incense to the memory of the victim?” as being indicative of having truly apologized and having truly shown remorse. This also often works against people, because the person who DOES NOT APOLOGIZE is often viewed very negatively, insofar as he is not recognizing or admitting his responsibility.
While of course there are lawyers in Japan, Japan is not a litigious society like America and other western countries. I have several friends in America who work as attorneys, and they tell me that, in general, in the business world America, one SHOULD NEVER APOLOGIZE, or one should apologize in very guarded terms, because apologizing is tantamount to admitting responsibility, and later, during a court case, this could be quite disadvantageous. In Japan, while there are of course lawyers, there is not the soon-to-sue culture here, and most civil cases are settled out of court (jidan ni suru in Japanese). Having spent years translating divorce documents in Japan, I can tell you from personal experience, getting involved with the courts in Japan IS NOT something I recommend, as civil cases or family disputes can drag on for years. As such, in Japan, apologizing does not automatically equal the legal recognition of responsibility.
On the virtue of apologizing
In Japan, the tendency, insofar as I understand it, is maintaining social comity, and the best way to do this is to apologize, regardless of whether or not one is in the wrong or not. The idea seems to be “toriaezu, ayamaru koto” (for the time being, just apologize). Once again, by apologizing, you are not necessarily conceding the high ground, so to speak, but rather, you are acknowledging that the other party has been inconvenienced or troubled and the fact that you apologized cannot (or usually) will not be used ex post facto to prove your guilt or responsibility. On the contrary, in Japan, if YOU DO NOT APOLOGIZE, this will reflect poorly on you, because it runs so contrary to the dominant cultural norm of “toriaezu, ayamaru koto.”
A personal anecdote
Although this is simply a personal anecdote, I do think it is illustrative. A few months ago, I received a call from a complete stranger. I soon realized he had mistakenly called my number, because he was an irate customer calling what he thought was the customer service for a major delivery company (the Japanese equivalent of Fed Ex). At first I tried to explain that he had the wrong number, but he repeated it back to me, and indeed, it was my number (I suppose then that it wasn’t the wrong number; I suspect the driver had mistakenly written my number, because I assure you, I do not moonlight as a delivery driver in Kumamoto). He refused to believe me, and accused me of trying to shirk my responsibility as a driver by denying being a driver. This continued for about two minutes (at this point, I felt flattered that he would mistake my Japanese as that of a native speaker), and then, finally, I broke down and apologized for the mistake (there was apparently some mistake in some packages that had not been delivered). Thinking about it now this was not the best course of action, to take the responsibility for something I did not do, possibly causing trouble for the delivery company itself but at the time it was the only thing I could think of. I said that I was very sorry for the trouble. I thanked him for pointing out my mistake, I apologized for claiming I was not a driver, and that I would endeavor to become a better driver. He calmed down, said he appreciated my honesty, and then went on to lecture (sekkyou in Japanese) me about the importance of hard work, admitting your mistakes, and taking responsibility. I thanked him again and told him I would take his words to heart (kimo ni meijimasu in Japanese). And that was that. Although apologizing in Japan takes on a level of importance that differentiates it from other countries, I think that apologizing in general, even if you are not particularly sorry can have a real calming effect on people. I think many times, people who are angry simply want recognition of their anger, and a sincere apology (or at least an apology that seems sincere) often does so.
Have you had any difficult experiences with apologizing in Japan?