The president of Tokyo Electric Power Co. came to an evacuation center here to apologize to whoever would listen. One of them was Yoshio Sato, wearing a pink trucker cap and a graphic T-shirt marked with a skeleton.

via In Japan, is a Tepco apology enough? – The Washington Post.

This post is about the Japanese habit of apologizing. Before you read further, I encourage you to read Mike Rogers’ post about how to deal with customer complaints in Japan. Then I won’t have to repeat a lot of what he says.

The article is about a confrontation between Shimizu, Tepco’s CEO, and Sato, a furious Fukushima resident who had to evacuate his home (leaving pretty much everything there) and come to an evacuation centre, all because of the Fukushima nuclear crisis.

That’s what the article is mainly about, but along the way, it drops some hints and makes some observations about Japanese culture about which I will pour my usual pearls of wisdom. Watch those pearls! Catch them as they fall! Are you ready?!? Here we go.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, because much of Japanese social exchange is made up of stock phrases, many people in similar situations say the same thing. Unlike Westerners, Japanese not only feel no shame or embarrassment about repeating the exact words used by someone else (even when those words were spoken a few seconds earlier by the person standing next to them), they feel this is a virtue. They do not feel pressure to say something unique, original, something that expresses their individuality. On the contrary, they try to avoid this. They want to appear to be good little group members whose primary concern is the feelings of their group members.

So how do you go about expressing what you really feel, when the vocabulary and phrases left to you are very limited in number? You have to put your feelings into the way you say those words. Also, when you say them. Timing is important, as it is in most cultures. “Happy birthday!” doesn’t mean the same thing when it’s said a day or two after your birthday as a day or two before.

The first thing mentioned about Tepco CEO Shimizu’s apology was that it came rather late: 6 weeks late, a fact not lost on those who were the recipients of the apology, or many observers. The article compares this timing with that of the CEO of Japan Airlines after that dreadful crash in the mountains in 1985, killing 520 passengers and crew (only 2 survived the disaster): he was apologizing to relatives within hours, and promised to resign after dealing with the disaster.

As Sato puts it, an earlier apology wouldn’t have repaired anything, but it would have at least convinced him that somebody noticed.In other words, that the apology was heart-felt or sincere (another word the Japanese use a lot and on which a high value is placed).

Perhaps no society in the world depends on apologies in the manner that Japan does. Social interaction is pinned together with apologetic tics, used when people step into an elevator, make a telephone call or finish their work shift.

True, but why? It is easy for outsiders to misinterpret this behaviour. Here’s a good example, a comment on Mike Rogers’ aforementioned blog on how to deal with customer complaints:

So the implication here is that in order for one to get ahead, he or she must grovel in humiliation.

What exactly does this suggest about the culture?

What does it say about the culture? It says that Japan is a hierarchical culture. The act of apologizing is like a dog offering its throat to a rival: “You win! I plead no contest! I come in peace!”

Also, the implication is not that you have to grovel in order to get ahead. The implication is that you have to grovel when you or your company did something wrong or caused customers inconvenience or discomfort or pain or loss.

You don’t have to have done anything wrong to apologize. The apology doesn’t mean that you did something wrong (though you may have done, in which case you should certainly apologize, and fast.)

Apologizing is the social oil that lubricates Japanese social interactions. It works. That’s what this “says” about the culture. The Japanese are pragmatists: they do what works. Apologizing works, it smooths human relations, it unruffles ruffled feathers. It keeps feathers that are not yet ruffled from becoming ruffled!

A coupla examples.

Any unscheduled meeting or any public talk or lecture is opened by the chair or the speaker saying, “Thank you very much for taking the trouble to come here today at this time, when I know you are all so extremely busy.” This is the dog lying on its back and offering its throat to the rival. It is saying, although I’m up here on the pedestal, I’m not so arrogant as to forget my position: I have caused you inconvenience by inviting you/requiring you to be here, and that puts me in your debt. You are my customers, not my pawns.”

It gets things off on the right foot. In Japanese culture, at least.

Anyone who comes to someone else with a request (Mike Rogers has a good example in his post The Great Tokyo Troubles with Fukushima are Over) begins with an apology. The apology says, “In this situation, I am your inferior, you are my superior (because I am asking you for your necessary cooperation; without it I cannot fulfil my obligations or carry out my intentions). I realize that you are perfectly in your rights to refuse my request. You therefore have power over me in this situation. I am lower down on the pecking order this time and this is my way of expressing it.”

Even when the other person knows that this is simply a device to obtain cooperation and disarm any possible feelings of annoyance or resistance or refusal, that person feels slightly flattered. At least it puts the receiver in a position from which it is difficult to refuse. It ups the odds that the recipient will cooperate, agree, pay up, whatever you want them to do. As I said, it works. So it is used.

The Japanese apologize so frequently, not because they like to grovel, or because they are a naturally servile and miserable people who have no pride – on the contrary, they are a very proud people generally speaking – but because it works to disarm, to charm, to win over people, to melt potential resistance or annoyance. It’s practical. It works.

Japanese people are not like Westerners, they are not so logical in their responses.  Many’s the time I’ve heard from my Japanese wife an interpretation of behaviour or a guess at a motive that leaves me huffing and puffing and spluttering, “Oh, that’s preposterous!” Only to have her be proved right by later events. And what’s even more annoying, she’s not only right when it comes to Japanese behaviour, but also about Westerners’ behaviour!

A Japanese I knew once tried to explain this difference between the roots of Japanese and Western behaviour to a class of airline stewards. He’d been asked to teach some basic Japanese to the employees of Air France, and in addition to the language classes he added a class called “Knowledge of Japan”. The Japanese behave according to their kimochi, he said, and they look for the kimochi in the behaviour of others and respond to that.

To give an example of this difference, if a Westerner asks for a glass of water and you bring him a whiskey, what happens? He will say, no, I asked for water, not whiskey. It is quite categorical. But a Japanese? It is never clear. He is not categorical. He will accept anyway, even if you bring him something other than what he asked for. Why?

As far as your job is concerned, the Westerner is interested only in obtaining the object of service which he requested. But a Japanese will see something else: the gesture, the intention, what we call the kimochi in Japanese. Once you have rendered him a service in good faith he will not dare to protest even if there is some mistake.

Well, I said to the students, it is perhaps awkward for you to know that there is a difference of mentality between the Japanese and the Westerners, but we cannot do anything about it. We must accept the fact; you are there to serve the passengers, not to educate them. The Japanese say yes out of their kimochi and when they say no it is also from their kimochi.

But it would be wrong of me to say that this behav­iour is exclusive to the Japanese and is due to the in­scrutable nature which you tend to ascribe to the mysti­cal East. Even Westerners have their kimochi, though they do not have a word flexible enough to express it. Let me give you a European example which actually happened.

(“The Not Doing”, by Itsuo Tsuda, my translation)

If you’re interested in reading more, this book, long out of print, should soon be available online. I’ll post details on this blog as they become available.



an earlier apology wouldn’t have repaired anything, but it would have at least convinced him that somebody noticed.