"JAPAN CLOSE-UP",  r 2005,  published by PHP 


Nations That Apologize, Nations That Never Apologize

By Masaomi Ise

This spring, anti-Japanese demonstrations heated up in China.  The demonstrators threw stones to smash windows of the Japanese Embassy and business establishments.  The demonstrators even injured some Japanese students by beating them with beer bottles and chairs.  As a matter of course, the Japanese government demanded that China apologize and pay compensation for the damages caused by the violent demonstrations.  However, a spokesman of the Chinese Foreign Ministry said, gObviously, it is Japan that bears the fundamental responsibility for todayfs Chinese-Japanese relationship.  Japan deserves to reflect on itself.h  I assume that not a few Japanese people must have been more shocked than offended by this impudence.  Thinking back on the Chinese nuclear submarinefs intrusion into the territorial waters of Japan or the violence at the Asia Cup soccer games, China came up with all kinds of excuses.  They never once apologized.  In actuality, like China, there are nations and nationals in the world that never apologize, and they appear to be the majority.  I wonder what separates the nations that never apologize and the nations that apologize without hesitation.  I feel that we can get a glimpse from here of a certain dimension of Japanese nationals.

Cultures That Do Not Apologize

A book titled gWhy Do Japanese People Always Feel Like gIfm Sorryh?h written by Akiko Nagano, Professor of Toyo University, tells us her interesting experience about this point. 


One day, Professor Nagano had a date for dinner with four French people at six thirty.  However, Mr. D who had arranged the time and place to meet was late.  The other people were kept waiting in the middle of a cold wind for no less than 30 minutes.  Mr. D finally showed up a little after seven.  He said looking at his watch, gGood, I made it.  The time we agreed on was seven, wasnft it?h  The other three Frenchmen started booing furiously.  However, Mr. D never apologized.


Professor Nagano thought:  If Mr. D said just a word of apology like gIfm sorry,h not only the people that had been kept waiting but also Mr. D himself would feel much better.  Cultures that do not apologize are quite stressful.  If Mr. D were Japanese, he would have apologized first of all when he arrived.  Then, he would have explained the reason why he had been late like gI rushed here in a cab but the road was jammed because of an accident.h  We thus apologize in any event even if the reason was no fault of our own.  This is the Japanese way.  And the people kept waiting would have accepted the apology saying like gOh, then you couldnft help it.h  Japanese people think that if a sincere apology was made, it would be accepted.

He Will Be Punished 30 Years Later

Here is a European folktale.  During the medieval ages, a poor young man fell in love with the daughter of a rich family.  But he was too poor to marry her.  So the young man murdered a merchant and stole his riches.  The daughter told the young man to go find out what kind of punishment he would receive.  The young man visited the grave of the merchant he had killed.  The merchant arose and asked God for justice.  Whereupon, a voice came down from Heaven, which said gHe will be punished 30 years later.h  Upon hearing this story from the young man, the daughter gave her hand to him and the couple had a happy life together for 30 years.  Then, by divine punishment, the couple and their mansion sank into the ground, with the grounds turning into a lake.  It is said that this story was later used in lectures at church.  Probably, the church told the people this story as a warning by adding that, as a punishment for having violated Godfs commandments (i.e. the Ten Commandments) such as gThou shalt not killh and gThou shalt not steal,h the young man was suffering everlasting agony of being burnt by hellfire after his death.

Ghost Story of a Coin Locker Baby

In contrast, todayfs Japan has a ghost story like this:  A woman happened to have a baby and was jilted by her lover.  She gave birth to the baby, but abandoned it in a coin locker of a train station.  Several years later, she had to deliver some documents to a company near the station.  Hesitatingly, she walked by the coin locker.  A little boy was crouching down there and sobbing.  But, strangely enough, other people were just walking by the boy without paying any attention.  The woman asked the boy, gWhatfs the matter?h  He gave her no answer.  gWhere is your father?h  gI donft know,h said the boy still sobbing with his head down.  gWhere is your mother?h  The boy looked up at her, said gHere,h and then quickly vanished.

Sins and Remorse of Conscience

It is interesting to compare these two stories.  In the European folktale, the young man made no apology and showed no fear when the merchant he had murdered rose up from his grave.  Furthermore, he and his wife then lead a happy life for no less than 30 years suffering from no remorse of conscience.  And the punishment he received 30 years later was a gphysical punishment,h being buried deep in the ground with his wife and mansion.


Meanwhile, in the Japanese story, the most fearful was the scene where the child whom the woman had abandoned to die appeared before her.  This was fearful despite the fact that the child only appeared and disappeared without doing any physical harm to her.  Why was this so fearful?  It was because the woman had suffered from her remorse of conscience.  And, even after this incident, she must have continued to suffer for the rest of her life.  Thus, Japanese punishment is a psychological one brought from the back of our mind such as the remorse of conscience and the resulting fear.


In the European story, the sin was having violated Godfs commandments such as gThou shalt not killh and gThou shalt not steal.h  As a result, the young man received a physical punishment from God.  What judged and punished him was God outside the young man himself.  In the Japanese story, the womanfs remorse of conscience turned into a punishment on her.  What punished her was the conscience inside the woman herself.

Voluntary Surrenders Are Rarely Seen in Europe

As seen in the story of the young man who killed a merchant, it is said to be rare that criminals voluntarily surrender themselves from remorse over their crimes.  According to a French judge, voluntary surrenders are exceptional because they are acts against the criminalfs own interest.  So, if a criminal surrendered to the police, we have to check if the criminal suffered from mental problems.  And, the judge continues sternly, if the criminal had no mental problems, we have to further investigate for what purpose the criminal had surrendered voluntarily.  The judge has determined that 80% of voluntary surrenders are false.


In Japan, it is said that 6% of the clues to the investigation of murder cases are brought from the criminalsf voluntary surrenders.  Since most of the criminals who surrender are remorseful over their crimes, they open themselves up to the investigators and seldom make false confessions.  Here is an example of the voluntary surrender of a former member of a criminal organization who surrendered eleven years after he had committed a murder for money.  Because the victim had appeared to this man in his dream every night and encouraged him to surrender, he had been drinking heavily from a sense of guilt.  As a result of surrendering and confessing everything, he seemed to be finally relieved.  Because his sense of guilt was based on his remorse of conscience, he might have felt as if the punishment had been attenuated when his remorse was accepted.

Both Adam and Eve Shifted Responsibility on to Other Shoulders

It appears that, in Europe, sin and punishment are very physical and logical matters and such psychological factors as apology and remorse of conscience have no relation to them.  The episode of the goriginal sinh in the Bible gives a good description about this point.  God allowed Adam and Eve to live in the Garden of Eden warning to never eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  However, Eve, by the instigation of a serpent, ate a fruit from the tree that looked very delicious.  Eve gave it to Adam and he also ate it.


God found it out and questioned Adam closely.  Adam answered, gI ate the fruit because the woman whom you had given to be with me gave it to me.h  He thus put on Eve the blame for having committed a sin.  God then brought Eve to account.  Eve said, gI ate the fruit because the serpent deceived me into doing it.h  She now shifted the blame on to the serpent.  As a result of such interactions, God, as punishment, cursed snakes to crawl on the ground, made women to suffer from labor pains, and cursed men to hard work to make a living.


For this goriginal sinh that humans committed for the first time ever, Adam and Eve only tried to shift the blame and never apologized.  If this story were a Japanese folktale, Adam would have apologized to God by groveling in the dirt while Eve pleading for him, gIfm the one who instigated him.  Please punish me, not him.  Et cetera.h  And the story would have gone like this:  God was impressed with their sincere apologies and attitudes without defiance, so He banished them from Eden instead of taking their lives.

Difference between Japanese and Euro-American Sins

There is one more thing that general Japanese people do not understand, which is why eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was a sin.  If the story were like gSince God had treasured the fruit of this tree, He felt great sorrow over having lost ith for example, Japanese people would fully understand that Adam and Eve were guilty because they caused God much trouble.  But there is no such description in the Bible.  Instead, only because God told them not to eat from the tree, eating from the tree was condemned as a sin.  That is, as cynics would see it, after showing them really delicious-looking fruits, God punished them because they could not suppress their appetite.  For European and American people, the sin is to violate prohibitions made by God or laws.  For Japanese people, in contrast, the sin is to bring trouble to others.


This difference is even clearer in their views about suicide.  That is, whether they assume that committing suicide is a sin.  In Europe and America, committing suicide is assumed to be a sin because it is against one of the Commandments, gThou shalt not kill.h  Though many Japanese people misunderstand this as gdo not kill other people,h European and American people take this as to include self-killings.  On the contrary, Japanese people do not assume that committing suicide is a sin as long as it does not cause any trouble to others.


Junior high school girls who have turned to prostitution to make pocket money often make excuses such as gI havenft gotten anyone into trouble.h  This is also brought from the Japanese view that the sin is to cause trouble to others, which the girls unconsciously carry in their mind.  In the Western world, prostitution is a sin by itself because it is against the Commandment of gThou shalt not commit adultery.h  By the way, how about explaining to the girls the reason why prostitution is a sin, like this?  gIt is your parents and society that have brought you up until now.  So, unless you become a fine adult so that you can repay this obligation to society, you will make your parents sad and cause problems to society.h

Nations That Apologize Without Hesitation, Nations That Never Apologize

In Japan, the sin is to cause trouble to others and the punishment is to suffer from remorse over having committed this kind of sin.  And the sin and punishment are cleared if we make a sincere apology and others accept it.  We have acquired this perception since our childhood.  For example, a textbook of Ethics for first graders introduces the following episode:


(A little boy knocked over a glass of drink when he was alone in a room.)  gOh, Ifve spilled the drink!h  (There was a cat under the table.)  gIfll put the blame on the cat.h  (Then, the boyfs mother came into the room.)  gItfs not my fault,h said the boy.  His mother took a long look at him and said sadly, gI see.h  Then, all of a sudden, the boy felt sad himself.  He thought:  I felt sad because my mother made a sad face because of me.  He felt remorse over having made her feel sad and thus caused her trouble.  Moreover, his mother felt sad not because he had knocked over the glass but because he had not apologized straightforwardly.  Upon reading stories like this, children learn that they have to apologize without hesitation if they have caused trouble to others.  Then, children also come to believe that, if they make a sincere apology, it will be accepted.


It appears that Japanese people have acquired their views about sin, punishment and apology since their childhood through such education as described above.  However, we have to remember that these views are only based on Japanese culture and many other cultures in the world may not be the same.  We must know that there are nationals that may not accept our apology however sincerely we apologize or may even attempt to take advantage of it.  At the same time, I wish that the people of our neighboring countries would learn how much mistrust they would cause among the Japanese people if they did not apologize straightforwardly after having caused trouble to other countries.  

This article is adapted from the mail magazine, Japan On The Globe (No. 391).

Masaomi Ise is editor-in-chief of the magazine.

URL: http://www2s.biglobe.ne.jp/~nippon/jogindex.htm