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Welcome to TokyoFreePress Saturday, March 25 2017 @ 12:46 AM JST

Culture of apology

It's not an exaggeration to say that not a single day has passed these days without our witnessing a press conference that is more like a ceremony for apology. People from various quarters, ranging from doctors to government officials, to police chiefs, to bureaucrats, to CEOs, apologize before the media for their misconducts, medical malpractices, abuse of human rights, lack of professional integrity, gross negligence, mismanagement of corporations, fabrication of educational background, corruptions, failure to pay the pension premiums, etc., etc. The more serious the consequences of their sinful acts are, the deeper they are supposed to bow. When the deepest bow doesn't work, they sometimes kneel on the floor. When Yamaichi Shoken, one of the then Japan's Big 4 securities companies, had to file for bankruptcy in late 1997 in the wake of the revelation of irregularities such as habitual "stock shuffling", its CEO literally burst into tears. Lawmaker Junichiro Koga did the same in January this year when he couldn't produce the diploma he had claimed to have gotten from Pepperdine University, Malibu, CA.

You may suspect that this is the Japanese way of trying crooks and criminals. But in fact we do not substitute press conferences for trials. We do have more or less modern legal system in place. If the Japan's legal system differs from the German, British or American systems, in which it has its origin, it does only in that Japanese laws are more lenient and they tend to positive-list what should be done and what shouldn't. Therefore, one cannot expect to have his penalty mitigated just by bowing and crying before the press.

Then why on earth do these guys keep bowing? My observation is that underlying these all too familiar scenes of apology is the very essence of this culture. As John Nathan points out in his "Japan Unbound" (Houghton Mifflin, 2004), Japan is a culture that is cruelly unforgiving to misfits. An entrepreneur or any other risk taker is done once he has failed. He is ostracized, for good, from this "homogeneous" society not because he failed, but because he tried to stick out, in the first place. It seems to me that by the same token, these wrongdoers keep bowing in the presence of TV crews and a huge crowd just to avoid a permanent expulsion from this monolithic society.

If I remember it correctly, we started to consider it an effective way of reconciliation to stage a bowing ceremony soon after the burst of the "bubble economy" in the early-1990s. Just by going through this ritual, many crooks have made a comeback after serving out their sentences. But what if an ordinary citizen such as myself committed a crime or omitted his professional duty? The media wouldn't flock to the venue of his ceremonial apology.


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