The global pandemic gives us a glimpse of Japanese apology culture

Apology Culture

During this pandemic, a type of news that shocks us is when high-profile people announce that they are Covid-19 positive. We often feel emotional when politicians, actors, or singers, who used to feel invulnerable, show their vulnerability on their social media, and are inclined to compassion towards them. In Japan, this global and common practice between celebrities and fans might have a different shape due to the country’s apology culture. 

Apology culture during the pandemic

On April 12th, TV Asahi, a Japanese television network, announced that Yuta Tomikawa, the main anchor of the news programme Hodo Station had been infected with the novel Coronavirus. The broadcaster informed that he continued to work for a week despite exhibiting some symptoms like fatigue, breathlessness, and a high fever. After his diagnosis, all staff started to practice self-isolation, and the whole building of TV Asahi was disinfected. Later on, two more cases were found among the team. 

Although some people would say Tomikawa should have taken more precautions, the process which TV Asahi took to avoid wider infection in the team and company seemed understandable. That is, until Tomikawa sent his apology to the same programme as follows:

“I caused trouble to the viewers, and the stakeholders with making this situation happened although I was in the position to encourage not to expand the infection. I apologise. I am reflecting my behaviour having looked down my fever and kept working.” 

Tomikawa is not the only one of those who apologised for “causing trouble” following their infection. Junichi Ishida, a Japanese actor, was also diagnosed as Covid-19 positive. According to the 66-year-old actor’s agency, he went to Japan’s southernmost prefecture of Okinawa on April 10th for work and a golf competition, but started to feel fatigued on the following day. It was after the Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe had declared the state of emergency on April 7th. Ishida was hospitalised right after his diagnosis and sent his recorded voice message to a radio programme. 

“…I normally take care of what to eat and do exercise but I am sorry that I ended up causing trouble,” he said.  

In addition, Riko Higashio, Ishida’s wife, apologised for the fact that she could not persuade Ishida of not flying to Okinawa, and showed her regret on her perceived helplessness. 

Both Tomikawa and Ishida quickly apologised for the trouble they caused, especially for people around them as well as their viewers or listeners.  Nevertheless, some Japanese people reacted critically to their unsafe activities at their work or the golf venue, and took to social media to blame them publicly.

Japanese people tend to apologise more often than any other nationalities in the private realm. We do not only apologise for our wrongdoings, but also when we thank others. If someone gives you a birthday present, you could say “I’m sorry for your kindness” in Japanese. This apology is for letting others spend their precious time on you in order to choose the present. Although it does not sound common in Western culture, Japanese people naturally translate their feelings to apologies quite often in their daily life. This extra humbleness is one of the keys to having a friendly and smooth relationship with others in Japanese society. 

Bitter interaction between and an individual and a group

Moreover, when it comes to public apology, like Tomikawa and Ishida, people have to maintain that extra humble attitude and be ready for confronting the public’s reaction. When high-profile people act inadequately, it is a quite common practice for them to hold a press conference in order to apologise for their socially inappropriate action. One of the most frequent topic is celebrity affairs.

Currently, Masahiro Higashide, an actor who was having an extramarital affair, appeared in front of media reporters and apologised for having a three year relationship with his mistress. This was followed by brutal reactions from random anonymous people posted on social media or online news. The whole story caught the public’s attention so widely that TV news often spent longer time to report every single action he made than any other current affairs. Surely, he had to apologise to his family — Did he have to do so to the public? 

In the Japanese apology culture, there is always a bitter interaction between an individual and a group. There is a Japanese proverb “Deru Kui wa Utareru” which means “a nail that stands will be hammered down”. The Japanese group-oriented tendency sometimes creates situations in which we overreact to one person who stands out by whatever reason. This might explain why celebrities who had coronavirus had to apologise to the people in the group they belonged to, as well as all Japanese people who were somehow bothered by their actions indirectly, as they stood out from the rest of their group. 

In the context of public apology, even if people are apparently apologising for people in their group, there are still questions left. — Who are they actually apologising to? Who is requiring them to apologise? — The answers are still abstract. 

Robert Smith, an American anthropologist, pointed the group-oriented nature of Japanese society in his book “A Pattern of Japanese Society: Ie Society or Acknowledgement of Interdependence?” and described the decision-making process that any given Japanese individual takes as follows: 

“…when an individual is called upon to make a decision, express an opinion, take a stand, or otherwise declare himself, he does so with reference to a set of standards determined by membership in one or another group, never acting autonomously”.

Japanese victims of coronavirus apologised as if they were wrongdoers. If group identification is too strong to change, at least us Japanese people could try to identify who we apologise to in our apology culture.

About the author

Ayumi Miyano

Japanese journalist a bit obsessed with photography and video editing. A pure generalist living with the motto: “Life is an experiment”.


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