Archive for Saturday, March 3, 2001

Apologies still important

March 3, 2001


Let me apologize in advance. Apology is, after all, the subject at hand, and maybe I have it wrong.

But over the past week, I've gotten the uncomfortable feeling that Americans regard the Japanese demand for up-close-and-personal remorse as a cultural quirk.

In the wake of the submarine accident, the idea that a captain should express sincere, face-to-face sorrow is being presented as some unique feature of an Asian subculture. Sort of like wearing a kimono or eating fugu.

On Feb. 9, a nuclear submarine near Pearl Harbor shot up from the deep like a reckless torpedo. The huge vessel crashed into a Japanese teaching vessel; four high school students, two teachers and three crew members were lost.

As families mourned their immeasurable loss, the regrets offered by the American commander and others fell on Japanese ears like the tinny sound of an airline supervisor announcing regret that the flight "had been oversold."

"We can't see him and we don't hear him," said one brother rejecting an early apology from Cmdr. Scott Waddle that had come through a lawyer. "We don't even know if he wrote it." Others in Japan were equally bewildered and angered that no one had come personally to face the families of the victims.

It took three weeks to awkwardly ratchet up American behavior to meet the Japanese expectations. At last, there were handwritten letters, bows of remorse and personal visits.

But the sorry story was cast as some kind of cultural misunderstanding. We were offered Cliffs Notes explaining how deeply important apologies are to the social harmony and functioning of Japan. As opposed to, say, the social harmony and functioning of America.

If the Japanese are harmony and fugu, what are we? Conflict and chopped liver? Who says social harmony here doesn't also depend on personal remorse and forgiveness? Or founder on its absence? Who says that it isn't a universal need?

I am not disputing the difference in behavior. Ambassador Thomas Foley had to go around Tokyo explaining that our Constitution gives Waddle the right to remain silent. It isn't our culture that has muffled public apologies. It's our court system.

If love is never having to say you're sorry (wanna bet?) liability is never being allowed to say it. We cast an apology as an admission of legal guilt rather than an expression of emotional regret.

Imagine an American CEO trundling over to the home of a worker who had his hand sliced off on the assembly line. His lawyers would have him padlocked in the corner office. Here, a doctor can't say he's sorry; a manufacturer can't say he's sorry. Indeed many a legal settlement is an exchange of money for absolution.

In Japan, it's said that apologies prevent lawsuits. Do we have any idea how many Americans would prefer remorse to a check? Will we ever find out? Sometimes the law comes between us and our emotions; sometimes between us and solutions.

I don't believe that remorse is a substitute for justice. Or that sincere sorries are easy. Japan has fallen short on apologizing for, say, Pearl Harbor or Nanking.

But in the everyday exchange of public remorse, asking and receiving forgiveness is a way people go on living together. Why else do we make our kids face the music? Why else does a glib "sorry" fester, and an insincere regret rankle?

Back in the 12th century, when the scholar named Maimonides codified rules of repentance, he wrote that the injured party had a right to expect someone to make amends, to take responsibility, to express real remorse and resolve to change. If he refused to accept the apology, it was to be repeated three times.

After that, it's important to note, the onus shifted. The person who refused to forgive became culpable.

"I'm sorry" won't bring back the students or raise the ship. But in a world full of grudges, apologies are a universal antidote.

As one man in the victims' hometown said, "You can call it a cultural difference, but for us it's just obvious and common sense for someone to apologize if he does something wrong."

Finally, the hollow regrets and boilerplate condolences gave way to personal apologies, and the Americans got it right. The Japanese already had it right.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.