Fact#21. Over apologizing?

JinK:  Bishop-san, I was reading an English magazine the other day.

Bishop:  There are a lot of news outlets in the States these days.With everything

going on these days, surely, it is an important way to follow the most current events

JinK:  Yes, but there’s something that doesn’t quite sit right with me…

Bishop:  Oh really? What is that?

JinK:  At the beginning of the magazine, there’s a space where the editor goes over

corrections on the previous issue.

Bishop:  These days, magazines have been having a tough time economically,

so they haven’t been able to check for errors as much as they should.

JinK:  Nice observation. You have a good point there. So that’s certainly true, but

there’s something else that’s been bothering me.

Bishop:  Error corrections are fairly standard… what else is there that’s bothering you?

JinK:  I mean, it’s not such a big deal, but why is there no apology? I mean, it’s a pretty

big blunder to print the French flag incorrectly, and incorrectly print a fairly

important number… as a magazine with a lot of influence, it’s kind of embarrassing

for them that they can print errors of this magnitude. And trying to excuse their

blunder by saying they made a mistake in calculating the exchange rate, without

any apology, seems like such an elementary mistake with no apology whatsoever,

just feels so wrong…

Bishop:  Ah… for sure, because in Japan, an apology would be the first thing you hear.

In Japan, any error is met with an apology. And in many cases, in press conferences,

you’ll see the executives bowing and apologizing.

JinK:  Of course… In Japan, if you get something wrong, it’s expected that you’ll

apologize. So why do editors in the U.S. feel OK with just stating their errors without

apology? Misrepresenting another country’s flag is a fairly insulting mistake, and

reporting incorrect numbers, you could really screw someone over if they use incorrect

numbers in their business talks… at any rate, these errors are possibly negatively

affecting the readers. Their lack of responsibility made me seriously consider


Bishop:  I think that the significance of apologizing is different in Japan than it is

in the U.S. In the U.S., apologizing means admitting that you are wrong, that means

you open yourself up to being sued for damages. Since admitting fault can open you

up to having to take legal responsibility, apologizing takes on a different meaning

in the U.S. An apology always carries the sense of admitting to wrongdoing, so

people don’t usually apologize without a very good reason. For example, when

you get into a traffic accident in the U.S., you’re never supposed to apologize since

that can be used against you in court as an admission of wrongdoing. Also, if you

go around apologizing for everything and anything without making an effort

to improve like many Japanese people do, you’ll be thought of as insincere.

JinK:  You have a tough viewpoint there, Bishop-san. I mean, even though I’m Japanese,

I still get angry at superficial apologies that don’t actually address the issue.

Even in Japan, if you make an apology without meaning it, people will lose trust

in you. So, you need to mean it from the bottom of your heart when you apologize.

Bishop:  I see, that may be true. But the fact remains that Japanese people apologize

all the time. Why is that?

JinK:  That’s a difficult question… I suppose that it comes from the idea that

“Harmony is of the utmost importance.”

Bishop:  Ah, a quote from Shotoku Taishi. This was article one of the 17 articles

in the constitution he passed 1,400 years ago, if I remember correctly…

JinK:  Bishop-san, how did you know that? Yes, essentially, it means that people should

try to get along well. For example, people fight from time to time. But whether

the person who instigated the fight is in the wrong, or the other person is

in the wrong, is not always clear. So when a conflict arises, rather than trying to

decide which side is right or wrong, in Japan the idea is that neither is totally wrong

or right, and that both sides are partially responsible, so both receive some form

of punishment. So when there is a conflict, before there is a judgement, both sides

tend to say “I thought about a lot of things, but I guess I was in the wrong,” and

the other will say “No, I was in the wrong,” and the conflict just kind of takes care

of itself. Rather than focusing on where the blame lies, people just let bygones

be bygones, let the past go, and aim to go forward in peace.

Bishop:  That is a fairly unique part of Japanese culture. In the U.S., when another person

admits they did something wrong, you hold them to it, and that’s seen as

upholding justice.

JinK:  You have a point, in the U.S. there is a lot of importance placed on upholding justice.

But if both sides keep blaming each other and you try to decide which is wrong,

doesn’t that just make fights lag on and lead to relationships breaking down?

What one person sees as right is sometimes the opposite of what another person

sees as right…

Bishop:  That’s true. But even so, there is a tendency in the U.S. to clarify who is right

and who is wrong. From the American point of view, Japanese tend to just give empty

apologies and never settle who is actually in the wrong. To put it simply, Americans

value justice, and Japanese value harmony. To create a peaceful world, I would say that

it’s probably important to take the best of both concepts.

JinK:  I agree. We definitely need to avoid the opposite, valuing any one single person’s

view of justice too much, or the opposite scenario in which nobody steps up to take

responsibility when problems arise. I suppose, given that, that I need to keep up with

recent events, so I can’t afford to cancel my subscription after all!

Fact#21.   Japan people tend to apologize often where as Americans rarely apologize

by Bishop & JinK.


One thought on “Fact#21. Over apologizing?

  1. I have this problem from my 21 years in the culture– 17 of which were spent as a Japanese wife. When I finally sobered up and married an American he was so annoyed by my apologies.

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