Kate Elwood discusses the differences in apologizing between Americans and Japanese in her latest Cultural Conundrums column for the Daily Yomiuri:
Carey had received an e-mail from a Japanese coworker, whom I'll call Mr. Setoguchi, asking for some information. Carey realized that another colleague had already sent what had been requested to both her and Mr. Setoguchi some months earlier. She did a quick search of her in-box and forwarded the pertinent e-mail to Mr. Setoguchi, with a quick note along the lines of, "Here is the information you requested." Happy to have been able to be so promptly helpful, Carey did not give the matter another thought. Until a few hours later, anyway. That's when Carey received a reply from Mr. Setoguchi and reconsidered her actions.
The e-mail's subject heading was owabi (apology). In the message Mr. Setoguchi apologized to Carey for asking for information that had already been sent, and further promised to be more careful in the future so the same thing would not happen again. The e-mail ended with another quick apology. Mr. Setoguchi seemed sincerely mortified, which made Carey feel bad. She hadn't meant to accentuate his lack of attention, simply to respond to him swiftly. She had expected a less profuse response from Mr. Setoguchi, something more along the lines of, "Thanks for forwarding the e-mail which I had overlooked." Carey felt like writing back to apologize for embarrassing him. But apologizing for making someone apologize seemed likely to only prolong the uncomfortable situation, so she let it go.
Applied linguist Naomi Sugimoto asked 200 American and 181 Japanese students to fill in questionnaires related to 12 scenarios in which someone had caused harm or inconvenience to another person. One of the questions asked about each situation was whether the offender should do or say something. Results indicated that the Japanese respondents favored actions or words more frequently than their American counterparts. In three of the situations, the percentage of Japanese responding affirmatively was at least 10 percentage points higher than the corresponding figure among American respondents. Across all situations the Japanese respondents indicated something needed to be said or done about 5 percent more often. In one scenario where inconvenience was caused by a meeting cancellation, 82 percent of the Japanese students said something should be said or done, but only 63 percent of the Americans did.
Moreover, the phrasing of apologies also varied. Sixty-three percent of apologies formulated by the Americans were "unelaborated"--such as "Sorry about that"--but only 39 percent of the Japanese apologies used minimal forms. The Japanese respondents also made "requests of forgiveness" for 21 percent of all situations compared to 7 percent for American students. In a scenario about breaking a friend's portable music player, 32 percent of the Japanese students asked for forgiveness but only 3 percent of the Americans did.
Public policy researcher Yoshiko Takahashi has investigated the importance of apologies in restorative justice. She asked 117 American and 198 Japanese students to imagine that a 17-year-old recidivist had stolen 500 dollars from their home. How important would an apology from the perpetrator be for them? Sixty-nine percent of the Americans agreed or strongly agreed that an apology would be important. On the other hand, 95 percent of the Japanese respondents felt this way.
Moreover, 49 percent of the Japanese students considered an apology a "very important" part of the resolution process compared to 18 percent of the Americans. Other response options bore out the notion that apologies were much more vital for the Japanese respondents. Fifty-six percent of the American students said an apology would be "nice, but would not change their feelings," compared to 37 percent of the Japanese. Sixteen percent of the American students said an apology was "not necessary" as opposed to 3 percent of their Japanese counterparts.