Contrition goes a long way in Japan, U.S. military, diplomats discover

Contrition goes a long way in Japan, U.S. military, diplomats discover

January 26, 2006


Chicago Sun TImes

TOKYO — It’s among the most Japanese of traditions: officials accused of wrongdoing go before the cameras to express deep regret and promise to make sure it never happens again.

But lately, the bowed heads in Japan are American.

Taking a cue from Japanese culture, in the last few weeks a raft of U.S. officials — from the U.S. military, the U.S. Embassy, and the departments of State, Agriculture and Defense — have gone before Japanese officials to humbly ask for forgiveness.

The reasons have been serious.

In one instance, a U.S. sailor was accused of beating a Japanese woman to death outside Tokyo. In the other, a shipment of American beef violated Japanese food safety rules, prompting a halt to further imports.

In both cases, American officials have gone out of their way to pour on the regret — challenging stereotypes among a people who consider themselves the world’s premier apology artists.

”I figured the U.S. side would come up with some kind of excuse, but since they admitted it so honestly, it makes me think that the United States values relations with Japan,” said Hisao Iwajima, political scientist at Tokyo’s Seigakuin University.

The importance of apology in Japan is hard to overstate.

A person can easily ask forgiveness a dozen times in a day in Japan, using several different phrases. Store clerks will insist to a customer that ”there is no excuse” for having made him wait a matter of seconds.

Practical reasons

Niceties aside, the American effort to satisfy the Japanese makes hard-nosed diplomatic sense.

Major issues are at stake. On the military front, the United States can hardly risk a blowup of anti-American sentiment as it realigns its position in Japan and ramps up its military cooperation with Tokyo — which has troops in Iraq as part of the U.S.-led coalition.

And Washington has a lot to lose by alienating Japanese consumers, who once constituted the largest overseas market for U.S. beef — $1.4 billion worth in 2003.

”It is obvious that the U.S. government tried to protect the general interests of American exporters,” said Michio Royama, a political scientist and commentator.


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