Showing poor apology etiquette

SUN JOURNAL

Symbolism: By Japanese standards, the United States has rather bungled its apology for the collision of a U.S. nuclear submarine and a Japanese high-school training vessel.

March 03, 2001|By Mark Magnier | Mark Magnier,LOS ANGELES TIMES

TOKYO -- In a small Japanese town, the American admiral bowed his head in contrition before grieving family members hanging on his every word. In the middle of the Pacific, the submarine commander wept as he delivered personal letters of apology.

For a nation where symbolism is important, the television images this week went a long way toward easing public anger and frustration about last month's catastrophic collision of a U.S. nuclear submarine and a Japanese high school training ship.

But the United States should have done it weeks ago, say Japanese sociological, etiquette and legal experts.

Washington finally sent Adm. William J. Fallon, the Navy's No. 2 officer, to the town of Uwajima to meet with the families of nine Japanese presumed dead in the accident Feb. 9 off Hawaii. And in Honolulu, Cmdr. Scott Waddle formally apologized, after merely expressing regret in an earlier attempt. But the United States did several things backward, the experts say, and often only after significant political pressure -- underscoring the very different role apologies play and the varied meanings they have in the two societies.

At one level, Japanese apologize dozens of times a day -- when entering a room, initiating a phone call, visiting a neighbor, giving a gift. Although in literal terms these are expressions of regret, in reality they are largely formulaic and don't carry much weight.

"It's a bit like Americans saying, `Nice to meet you,'" says Tatsumi Tanaka, president of Risk Hedge, a crisis-management company. "It's not as though they necessarily mean it."

A very different set of rules and expectations applies, however, when a dispute or accident is more serious or contentious. In these cases, apologies play a key role in a nation that eschews confrontation and values group harmony.

In the Japanese context, Waddle as the person most directly responsible for the accident should have apologized first and quickly -- well before President Bush. And ideally, he should have done so in person, by traveling to Uwajima, the tight-knit community that is home to the families of the missing.

"What apologies represent is very different for Japanese than for Americans," says Tamami Kondo, president of the Seishikai finishing school in Tokyo. "The first consideration isn't how guilty you are, but rather a desire to show your concern for hurting the other person's heart."

Those cultural differences are reflected in the respective legal systems as well. In the United States, apologies carry a stronger connotation of guilt, so most people facing a legal challenge tend to sidestep responsibility or clam up from an early stage.

In Japan, on the other hand, it's important to apologize right away in court or even before a trial because it's culturally expected and evidence of contrition can result in a greatly reduced sentence.

"An apology comes first," says Takao Tanase, a law professor at Kyoto University. "In the U.S., you deny everything."

Although situations vary, in Japan if the case is grave enough to require a series of apologies -- as in the sinking of the Ehime Maru fisheries vessel -- these should ideally be made in ascending order of hierarchy, etiquette specialists say.

From the Japanese perspective, the U.S. apologies often seemed to go up and down the chain in a rather disorganized fashion.

But in a move that was generally appreciated here, Fallon bowed while meeting with two family members of the missing at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo on Wednesday.

While foreigners are not expected to understand the subtleties of Japanese bowing, proper decorum calls for a tilt of 90 degrees in cases of deep regret. Particularly egregious cases generally call for dogeza -- literally, "sitting below ground" -- a full kowtow with the supplicant's head touching the floor.

Political tone

Amid rising frustration in Japan and the United States, the apology issue has taken on a political tone.

Japan has given widespread coverage to a commentary piece in the Washington Post that pointed out that Japan continues to demand apologies in this case even though it hasn't been forthcoming with its World War II apologies.

Japanese feel this is a bit of a cheap hit. Many here believe the sub accident isn't comparable to the decisions and complex social forces that were played out more than 50 years ago.

Japan has issued apologies, albeit grudgingly, to Korea and China for wartime acts. Many also take the view that the United States and Europe forced Japan into the war by imposing a suffocating trade embargo.

While there may be some validity in this belief, it still doesn't explain why Japan invaded China in 1931, says Gregory Clark, president of Tama University.

"The question of the war is a very delicate one," he says. "This is where embarrassment and shame all come together."

Cultural expectation

Although Japan places great emphasis on ritual apologies, it's not enough simply to follow forms when making an apology.

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