Sorry seems to be the hardest word: apologising in Japan

The Japanese bowI’ve just read an article about the often difficult practices of apologising in Japan.  The article itself is focussed mainly on corporate responsibility-taking, but it talks about some interesting facets of Japanese apologies, which are of many different degrees, including the depth of bow accompanying them.

The art of apology is an intrinsic part of Japanese culture. When you ask a shopkeeper for help, or when you bump into someone on the inevitably crowded trains, you say “sumimasen.” A direct translation of this phrase is “excuse me,” but a more a more accurate rendition is “I am so sorry to bother you.”

Apologizing is as common as saying please and thank you. It is a way of maintaining harmony in social situations. If you are the first to leave work in a Japanese office, you say “Osaki ni sitsuree simasu,” which means “I commit the great rudeness of leaving first.”

It also gives some extreme examples of historical corporate apologies:

Japan has a long history of corporate personal apology in Japan. In 1985, following the crash of Japan Airlines flight 123, the president of JAL Yasumoto Tagaki assumed full responsibility for the accident, the worst single-airplane incident in aviation history. Of the 524 passengers only four survived.  Takagi went to the extraordinary length of personally visiting the families of the victims. It was only after he had fulfilled this obligation and offered one last public apology that he resigned. Another JAL employee, a maintenance manager apologized in a more extreme manner: he committed suicide.

Some apologies don’t actually apologise, either.  Sometimes they include remorse and regret, and sometimes even compensation, without ever actually taking responsibility and giving apology.  Do you think these are valid apologies?

Some parts of culture are so deeply ingrained in countries that it becomes very difficult for outsiders to get a grip on them.  How is apologising different in your country?

Source: MSNBC.