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: