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Apology culture in Japan

日本のお詫び文化


As foreigners, it’ easy for us to be confronted with cultural collisions. How do you apologize in your own country? Are you willing to apologize immediately when bumping into troubles with other people? This time I want to talk about the unique apology culture in Japan and to see how much you may have misunderstood about it.
Have you ever heard the word “dogeza(土下座)”? It is a form of apology in Japan which involves a person kneeling directly on the ground and bowing to prostrate oneself while touching his/her head to the floor. It was also a way of showing deference to a person who had higher status in the past. This kind of apology is really not normal in other countries and it suddenly reappears because of a drama called “Hanzawa Naoki”. The drama is about a revenge of a small banker named Hanzawa Naoki. When he was young, his father had to perform a dogeza in front of a banker called Owada to ask for a loan which was rejected at that time. So Hanzawa entered the bank to get revenge. In the last scene, Hanzawa succeeded at making Owada perform a dogeza in front of him at a large meeting. This drama got famous not only in Japan but also overseas because of its charming story and also the unique scene of “dogeza”.


Japanese way of apology and its historical background


A specific example of apology in Japan was a terror case performed by ISIS which happened in 2015. 2 Japanese were taken as hostages. When one hostage was killed by the terror organization, the first word said by his father in front of the media was to apologize for his son causing trouble for society. The mother of another hostage also apologized for causing trouble for society. This triggered a huge discussion worldwide at the time wondering why they can hold their huge sadness and apologize first. This is because of the unique apology culture in Japan.
We can find the history of apology culture in the history of Japan. In Edo period, the class system was extremely strict. The ignorance towards a person from a higher class can cause a big trouble which may end up in a penalty of the person from the lower class. So it’s wise not to take further actions but to calm the people involved first. The word ‘’和”(wa) performs an important role in this cultural phenomenon as well. ‘’Wa” is translated as harmony in English, which indicates a peaceful unity and conformity within a social group. Why harmony is so important in Japanese culture is because Japan developed from an agricultural society. In agricultural society, collective behavior is rather important. Therefore maintaining harmony with each other and nondeviation from the group was a way of living at that time. Regardless of anything that happened, apologizing first and keeping the harmony of the society was quite important. This culture was inherited in the Meiji period and remained until now. Nowadays we can see companies frequently conduct apologies in front of media outlets when scandals occur.

Apology in other countries


On the opposite, it’s not common to see public apologies in other countries. In Western countries, instead of saying sorry, taking action is considered to be more important. Making a verbal apology is not considered to be that important. Making an apology right away may be considered as lacking negotiation skills. The reason can be found in the history as well. For example, America was made up from a large amount of immigrants. Therefore, troubles caused by different languages and customs may have been a serious issue. So in American culture, people are used to forgiving mistakes made unconsciously because of different cultural backgrounds. Also, America has developed from animal husbandry culture, therefore harmony was not that important in the past. In animal husbandry culture, the independent ability is considered to be more important. Therefore, they don’t need to put as much effort into building the harmony of the society as in agricultural society .
We can see this difference in the situation that took place in 2017 related to United Airlines when one passenger was forced to leave the airplane because of the bad management of United Airlines. Passengers were over capacity at the time, therefore 4 random passengers were selected to leave the airplane. One of the passenger refused to leave, then 2 United Airlines staff used violence against him leaving him with his nose bone fractured. This issue stirred huge criticism of United Airlines at that time. It finished with the CEO of United Airlines making a comment on social media claiming the settlement between United Airlines and the passenger had been made. This way of action is common for American companies, i.e. acting first instead of apologizing. But this kind of action from companies may cause trouble in Japan. Because it’s important for the people to see the attitude of the apology from the company first. Therefore in Japan we may frequently see people involved in scandals apologize in front of cameras.

Different cultural background forms different apology culture


Because of the different historical background, the way of making an apology can be quite different in various cultures. Therefore, misunderstanding of a different culture can cause trouble in some situations. In some cultures, making an apology=taking responsibilities/commitment to compensation, therefore it’s more difficult for them to make an apology first. In Japanese culture, they are more willing to make an apology first regardless of whether it’s their mistake as making an apology is totally different from taking responsibility in Japanese culture. Therefore, cultural collisions may happen when an accident occurs between people of different cultural backgrounds. The Japanese may get annoyed wondering why foreigners don’t apologize while foreigners may get annoyed at the Japanese making apologies without acting.