I am nearing the end of a nine day sojourn in the land of the rising sun. I will have crisscrossed the main island twice on this trip before leaving for Korea. A good chance to check the pulse of the nation. August is usually a brutally hot and humid month in Japan. This year August is more uncomfortable than normal. Air conditioning is limited due to the impact of shutting down the nuclear power generators after last year’s earthquake and tsunami. It would be normal to expect tempers to be short and social graces to be lacking in this breathless and sweaty environment. However, I have not found that to be the case.
Another 3 hour ride on the Shinkansen has given me the opportunity to ponder why conditions that would have people in most countries snapping at each other during the dog days of August have very little impact on how Japanese treat each other. The fact is, nobody knows how to apologize for anything and everything like the Japanese. The tough weather conditions only seem to make the flow of “gomen nasai” and “sumimasen” more rapid.
When I first came to Japan in the 1990s, I found the culture of apology to be somewhat off putting and that was when I only understood one of the multitude of ways the Japanese tell each other on an almost constant basis just how sorry they are for, well, everything. Of course, Americans can apologize too. If pressed by circumstances, a New Yorker can quickly deliver an insincere “sorry” but that is about as far as it goes. Japanese, on the other hand, seem to have made a national sport of “one upmanship” when it comes to telling each other just how they are sorry for all offenses real and imagined.
This week has been a great example of the “spirit of I am sorry”. When I arrived at customs after a 12 hour flight from Europe the person who stamped my passport apologized for two things – making me wait (less than a minute) and how hot Japan is. Imagine the immigration staff at LAX apologizing for anything, ever………
I was on a roll – I got two more apologies when I purchased my train ticket – one because I had to wait 40 minutes for the next train and another because my connection time of 20 minutes at Tokyo station might not be “convenient”. I did not get an apology from my taxi driver but knew my friends at the hotel would give me another “sumimasen” fix at check – in. Before making it to my room I collected three more verbal apologies and one in writing. Although by this point I was thinking I should stop counting the apologies for the weather. Anyway the written apology was from the hotel staff person who normally greets me and makes sure I get my “welcome Perrier”. She had the audacity to be on vacation and wouldn’t be there. She had asked two of her colleagues to make sure my stay was pleasant so both of those people apologized for the slothful behavior of their boss who had the temerity to take 10 days off.
Understanding the differences between the culture I was raised in and the Japanese culture has long been an interest. Things that I first judged as “making no sense” have usually proved to be important components of a very different culture. Even if the level of sincerity in the plethora of apologies is limited, you have to appreciate that even an institutionalized apology makes daily life a lot more pleasant than a glare or shrug of the shoulders more common in the west. When my elder daughter was nine she visited Japan with me for the first time. Early one morning we happened to be crossing a street near Osaka station when perhaps 100 commuters were walking straight at us. My daughter’s hand tensed in mine. Her wide eyes indicated that she thought we might be swallowed whole by the oncoming dark haired crowd in blue suits. I looked down at her and said: "this is one of the coolest things about Japan, we can walk straight into that crowd and nobody will bump you". Her disbelief was obvious as was her joy when we reached the other side of the street unscathed.
Over the weekend, I played golf. I love playing golf in Japan – except of the fact they make you eat lunch in between the front and back nine. That is just the golf business model and does not merit an apology. I am sure I could request an apology for having to eat lunch but I am still thinking about it.
My caddy apologized for so many things I lost count. Of course, the hot weather, the occasional gust of wind, the belief that her advice must have been the cause of all my missed putts. The fact that I still hear all the apologies simply proves I am outsider. Maybe I should apologize for that ……..
“Dear Visitor: We are extremely sorry that Mount Fuji has no snow at the top this week, we are doing our best to correct this situation and appreciate your understanding”