The art of saying sorry

Executives of big Japanese corporations have been seen bowing deeply at press conferences in recent years. They were apologizing, in Japanese style, for their companies’ misconduct.

The scenes have become a familiar sight in Japan with the high number of corporate scandals, from deadly air bags to falsified product data, from improper accounting to flawed inspections.

Household names whose reputations were tarnished have included Kobe Steel, Mitsubishi Materials, Nissan, Toray and Olympus, to name just a few.

To express remorse, the bosses of scandal-hit companies put their hands by their sides and bow at a 45-degree angle, their faces looking directly at the floor. It must be 45 degrees — a 35-degree angle represents greeting.

So bowing, or ojigi in Japanese, does not simply mean contrition. Japanese people bend forward for many purposes, from saying hello to saying goodbye, and of course, saying sorry.

The Japanese are not a “skin-ship” nation. Touching someone on the shoulder you first meet is not the appropriate thing. Until they get to know you, an invisible shield encompasses them and the bow is the only way they know to greet you, thank you and show respect to you without lowering the shield.

The correct way to bow in Japan is to bend at the waist, keep your back and neck straight, feet together, eyes downward, and have your arms straight at your sides. Women often bow with their fingertips together or hands clasped in front at thigh level.

The deeper the bow, the more respect and submission is shown. A quick, informal bow involves bending to around 15 degrees, called eshaku. A more formal bow calls for you to bend your torso to a 30-degree angle, known as keirei. The deepest bow means bending to a full 45 to 90 degrees, called saikeirei, while you look at your shoes. The longer that you hold a bow, the more respect is shown.

Corporate bows are usually held for around 10 or 15 seconds. When the former chief of Mitsubishi Motors Corp apologized for two decades of product defects, he bowed for a full minute. Sony’s bow was seven seconds.

The last one and the most extreme bow is dogeza, or groveling. This one has a truly deep meaning, even more than saikeirei.

If someone has made a fatal mistake, the kneeling bow with his or her head on the ground is usually committed. It was also the one for people in Japan to show respect to their emperor in ancient times. People prostrated themselves outside the Imperial Palace in Tokyo as they listened to Japanese Emperor Hirohito’s radio broadcast announcing their country’s surrender in World War II.

In 1996, when a Japanese drug firm admitted that several hemophiliacs had contracted HIV from its contaminated blood products, one victim’s family complained that the company’s contrition did not come from the heart. Within moments, the firm’s six top executives silently fell to their knees before the families, lowering their foreheads to the floor.

Bowing is so important in Japan that parents begin to teach the practice to children shortly after they start walking, and some schools hold enormous assemblies where preteens spend hours bowing in unison to master the postures.

School kids stand and bow when their teacher enters the room. Even at many supermarkets, cashiers will give a slight bow when handing over the change. And at many shops, clerks will bow after customers make a purchase.

In general, people in Japan should bow more deeply to superiors, elders, people of rank or office, and anytime the situation demands additional respect. Bows of sincere apology are usually the deepest and last longer than other bows.

Sometimes, it does not even matter if customers can see the bow or not. The other day, I saw a car salesman at a Lexus dealership bow for a good minute or so as a customer picked up his car after having it serviced and drove it down the road. The driver could not see that the Lexus salesman kept his head down. Everyone else, however, could. It is a visual manifestation of gratitude.

At the end of their matches, Japanese football and baseball teams always bow to their fans on the field. In 2014, the baseball team of Noshiro Shoyo High School, in Akita prefecture, went to extremes to show its gratitude. After the team was defeated and lost the chance to appear in the national tournament, all players lined up by the side of the road outside the stadium to see off their fans. The players said “thank you” and bowed to every car. Since there was traffic, they ended up standing there for almost an hour in the rain.

Sometimes a combination of handshakes and bows will ensue — but never at the same time. Mixing the two is inappropriate and hard to do: In a handshake, people make eye contact, but they look at the floor when bowing.

Meeting with Japanese Emperor Akihito in Tokyo in November 2009, visiting US president Barack Obama erred by bowing deeply and, at the same time, shaking hands.

US conservatives criticized Obama’s low bow as a sign of submission. Former US vice-president Dick Cheney said there is no need for an American president to bow to anyone.

During his stay in Tokyo in November, US President Donald Trump greeted Japanese Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko with a genteel handshake and nod, but no bow. Trump was observed to have stooped and slightly tilted his head as a gesture of respect to the 83-year-old symbol of Japan.

So the bow can also be seen as a diplomatic gesture.

As a form of apology, it can be ritualistic, leading some to question the act’s sincerity.

People believe the best gauge of remorse is how low the bow is, so photojournalists like to stand off to the side of the press conference podium to capture the angle of a company executive’s bow.

On Dec 19, several officials of West Japan Railway Co joined the legion of high-ranking apologizers, bending forward to the cameras out of remorse over a crack and oil leak found underneath a running shinkansen bullet train in the first “serious incident” affecting the Japanese high-speed train system.

The bows of business heavyweights in recent years have betrayed the problems in Japan’s manufacturing industry and the trust they have lost.

The author is China Daily’s bureau chief in Tokyo.

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