Jun 242010

Click here to link to a great article on Japanese apologies (along with some teaching ideas at the bottom) by Darren Lingley. He writes about the 2001 Ehime Maru tragedy where a  Japanese fisheries high school training boat was sunk when a US Navy submarine surfaced in a training maneuver. Nine people, including students, were killed. The bereaved Japanese families expected an immediate apology (a clear public expression of contrition) from the US captain, along with a full acknowledgement of responsibility. The captain, constrained by an ongoing Navy investigation and legal liability issues, was silent for a long time, then sent a sent a letter to the families expressing ‘sincere regret’. It was felt to be totally inadequate. No doubt he was acting under the instructions of lawyers, but lawyers can get in the way of apologies.

Darren’s paper includes this summary of some key cultural differences between Japan and the US.

I’d be interested to know what others think, but reckon an important one to point out when we’re teaching ‘apologising’  in a Japanese classroom is the way we tend to offer accounts and explanations in AmE (and BrE). From another perspective, they can be seen as insincere excuses and attempts to deny culpability.

Another interesting one that’s only lightly touched on above is body language. If you’re apologising, what impression does it give if you smile? Here’s an interesting explanation of what might  lie behind it, written by  Chie Iryo, a Japanese writer:

Recently I read some books that treat the differences between English Culture and Japanese. The books treat the mystery of the Japanese smile. They say foreigners think it is very strange...  Now, I will explain to you about it.

When do you think a person smiles? I think when he is happy, he does. When he is sad, he doesn’t. Anyway when a person is happy he smiles. But Japanese have some exceptions. If you made a mistake, what do you do? Do you change color or make an excuse and tremble? In general, we Japanese smile. But we are not happy but very shameful. Then we smile bitterly. Why? For Japanese don’t like to express their feelings. We tend to think to express our feelings is shameful. If foreigners know our weak points, we think as if we are weaker than they. So we smile to cover our shame.

Has anyone else encountered this? I wonder if we might do something similar sometimes in BrE as well when we’re embarrassed. Any thoughts?

Some other posts on apologies:

Sorry, I’m English

A Thai apology

A British apology

 Posted by at 2:35 pm

  6 Responses to “Japanese apologies”

  1. Oh yes… the nervous giggle. The smile of shame. I still find it difficult to deal with that response when I am giving a student a warning about plagiarism, persistent lateness or some other grade threatening behaviour. “Do you think this is funny?” “No, it’s deadly serious and I feel very uncomfortable. That’s why I’m smiling.”

  2. Exactly! I used to find that student’s response so strange, Darren. I felt I was never reading it right.

    And another one that I think might be related (and all takes on this appreciated) is when it works in reverse, so they feel shame or horror for you.

    Here’s my best example. I arrived in Japan and registered with my doctor as a single woman. Nearly two years later I turned up saying I’ve got these strange symptoms. So the doc tells me to lie down and examines my stomach. Silence. And then an laugh – a definite laugh:
    “It’s either a tumour or a pregnancy”

    I’ve never been sure what that laugh was about. But I’ve always reckoned he was reasoning it had to be bad news either way. He had no idea I’d got married in the meantime so maybe he’s embarrassed for me or much worse, he thinks I’m going to die – but either way it he’s thinking it has to be bad news. And so the laugh. Any thoughts?

  3. I tried to teach the “apology, reason, promise of future action” apology structure in Japan, as well as elaborating apologies (“I really am most terribly sorry”) rather than repeating them “Gomen, gomen, gooooooomen ne” with a variation on this http://www.tefl.net/alexcase/worksheets/functions/polite-game/. Can’t imagine it really stuck (apart from maybe responding to letters of complaint, as they can use the models I gave them and take their time to think about it), but made for an interesting lesson as the Japanese love being told how different they are. I find it similarly difficult to do Japanese complaints myself, trying desperately to stop myself giving a reason for my action etc.

    I think there are quite a lot of more generalisable things going on there, such as the concept of varying the language to show that you’ve put the thought into it and so are genuine and making an effort not existing in Japanese. There is also a general lack of elaboration, e.g. compliments should be responded to with a short and fixed “Yaaa, zen zen” (no, not at all) rather than a reason why it was no trouble at all

  4. PS

    Never really noticed the nervous laugh thing, so have a feeling it does exist amongst socially uncomfortable Brits like myself

  5. So you find it hard to hold off from giving a reason for your errors, Alex. Why yes!
    I’m struck by how seemiingly effortlessly Americans respond to compliments. Might it be because they are given more routinely here and so, in some ways, mean less?
    But when you look at the speech data, it’s actually not a simple matter at all at all in AmE. Just like the rest of the world, there’s a need to appear modest so they need to be deflected. Maybe it’s more a case of practice make perfect?

  6. Link I gave above now broken, but much more detailed explanation of that politeness competition game with many versions now here:

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