The art of apology
Saying sorry is important when relating to Japanese people
When I started reading the detective novel Masquerade Hotel by Keigo Higashino, I was just expecting an entertaining read.1 But the more I read, the more I became aware of certain cultural issues.
I was struck by how often the characters apologised to each other—it seemed like someone was always saying sorry to someone else! I counted 85 apologies (an average of one every six pages). It is partly due to the novel’s setting: a high-class hotel in central Tokyo. The hotel staff apologise whenever a customer is slightly inconvenienced or mildly disgruntled. (A Japanese tutor who had worked in a hotel told me that staff are taught to apologise whenever a customer is unhappy, no matter what the cause.) But other people apologise too—peers to peers, underlings to bosses, and vice versa.
An apologetic culture
You don’t have to live in Japan for long to notice how frequently people apologise here. A friend will say sorry for keeping you waiting even when they’ve arrived before the agreed meeting time. There are apologetic announcements when a train is running a few minutes behind schedule, even when the cause is beyond the control of the rail company (such as a passenger taken ill). Newscasters apologise and bow when a kanji in the subtitles is wrong. A company board of directors holds a press conference to give a formal apology for some mistake, bowing deep and long while camera shutters fire like crazy.
These observations were confirmed in an article about the cultural differences between Westerners and Japanese when it comes to apologizing.2 Rochelle Kopp notes that Japanese people often complain that their foreign coworkers don’t apologise when they do something wrong and don’t take responsibility for their mistakes; rather, non-Japanese people tend to blame circumstances or others. She contrasts Western and Japanese typical responses to turning up late to the office: “In countries other than Japan, upon arriving at the office one might breezily say: ‘Sorry I’m late! There was a big accident and traffic was really backed up.’” Here, “circumstances outside of the employee’s control, such as the traffic, are pointed to—even if, in reality, the fact that the employee left home a little on the late side not leaving much slack for unexpected delays was a contributing factor.” Kopp notes, however, that, “the Japanese employee who is late would be expected to bow their head and apologize profusely, might not mention the traffic jam at all, and would likely offer a plan for avoiding the same thing happening again, such as ‘I’ll leave home earlier in the future.’”
Kopp observes that when something goes wrong, Japanese are expected to practice hansei, which roughly translates as “reflection” or “introspection”. She sees it as a two-stage process. The first stage involves reflecting on what one has done wrong. In this stage, “your typical Japanese employee will immediately acknowledge that the problem was their fault and take responsibility for it by verbally apologizing for it (in some cases, apologizing even if the problem was not strictly their fault).”3 The second stage is outlining concrete steps to ensure the same thing doesn’t happen again.
Kopp gives an example of hansei in action. A technician accidentally stepped on and killed a lab rat that had escaped from its cage, and the American team leader was placed in the unenviable position of having to explain what happened to the Japanese pharmaceutical company that had commissioned the experiment. It was a delicate situation with potentially serious repercussions. But the team leader was familiar with Japanese culture. So he drafted a letter in which he took full responsibility for the accident and explained that if a rat ever escaped again, the technician in question was under strict orders to stand still and call for help from other team members. The approach worked, and the Japanese company accepted the apology.
Be quick to apologise
Given the importance of apology in Japanese culture, we should be quick to apologise when relating to Japanese people. An apology acts as a form of relational lubricant—it can quickly diffuse situations that could become tense. It may be appropriate to say sorry even when we don’t feel that the fault lies mainly with us. It would also be good to think of ways to avoid a reoccurance (hansei).
1. Keigo Higashino, Masquerade Hotel (Shueisha Bunko, 2014) (Japanese-language novel).
2. Rochelle Kopp, “Nobody’s perfect, but an apology really helps at a Japanese company,” Japan Times, https://japantimes.co.jp/community/2019/04/24/how-tos/nobodys-perfect-apology-really-helps-japanese-company Apr 24, 2019 (accessed 09/09/2019).
3. Ibid, Kopp.