On Excuses and Apologies

A Culture of Politeness

One of my formative lessons in Japanese culture was an old National Geographic article about the cranked up, high stress, high velocity fresh fish business during the mid-80’s, when Japan was booming. It explained how no-fault apologies stop blood from running in the streets. Fascinating, really.

In other words, the Japanese aren’t polite because they don’t get angry; they’re polite because they do get angry, and require a visible effort to apologize to calm tensions. Japanese people are raised to regard the apology as a white flag, reminding of the need for peace and harmony in all things… and that violating this peace has consequences.

But no, it’s not that the other person doesn’t want to gut you with a knife for bumping into his cart and costing him thousands of dollars’ worth in raw fish. It’s that he gracefully puts this temptation aside because of societal norms.

That doesn’t mean the action is excused. It is simply tolerated, because in the above circumstances, it’s not just an issue of harmony – it’s an issue of all being involved in business, i.e. making money (, かね、kane), so stopping to squabble is a lot less productive than moving on to the next profit-making opportunity.

There Is No Excuse

A Japanese phrase I often hear by anyone using a “serious” speaking style (esp. in a business, government or organizational context) is 申し訳御座いません (moushi wake gozaimasen).

Now, “gozaimasen” is an old, over-polite, negative existence verb (like 無い (nai), which can replace gozaimasen in less formal speech). In other words, is not. The other part, “moushiwake,” is listed in your typical J>E dictionary as “apology, excuse.”That’s not really a good way to read it, though.

It’s best to read this as excuse, because then you get the idiomatic phrase “There is no excuse,” which we may read as an apology. Indeed, as a former translator, I would be at pains to write this as anything other than “My apologies.

Now, totally aside from the entire concepts of idioms, this isn’t like the notorious no-apology apology excuse in English. (You know, where you say “I regret if my words were misinterpreted,” thus saying it’s someone else’s abject stupidity that you are apologizing for, which isn’t much of an apology at all.) This is the no-excuse apology, as in, “I cannot excuse my actions. Through making this clear, I implicitly and truthfully apologize to you.”

Or put another way, if you say an apology does not suffice, you are apologizing nonetheless.

The cultural aspect – I don’t want to say difference really – is that when an excuse is waived, because a lot of excuses come up in life (and not just “the dog ate my homework”), the other party is hoped and expected to not be out for blood (anymore). It’s not something where the other party retains the implicit right to get more angry, insulted by an apology being in place of restitution.

When Toyota was against the rocks vis a vis unintended acceleration, people were saying that an apology was a legal precursor to suing because everyone could then say that it was an admission of guilt. I’m not sure if this was an invention of the moment or firmly based in precedent; I wasn’t under the impression that Japan was as lawsuit happy as the US, but over time, cultures can become more like each other in certain respects, too. Happens often enough. Do you think blue jeans were always a Japanese fashion staple?

Apologies Preceded By BS

The point of saying there is no excuse is to say, in effect, “I’m not trying to pull a fast one on you.” Or, I’m not trying to pull a fast one on you now. No more excuses. We’re past that.

Now, one of the principles of reading history is to understand that people writing it have biases. If monks in the 12th century were complaining about women bathing with men in hot baths (which were essentially temporary structures), it’s probably because that was happening a lot. Otherwise monks wouldn’t be complaining about it, would they?

So put very bluntly, why would the Japanese language (and through it, the Japanese culture) have a way of saying, “Let’s cut out the BS,” if there wasn’t a lot of chaff thrown up to avoid having to apologize?

Of course there is. That’s why the apology system exists as something to use as a last resort.

I’ve had a mildly amusing time reading about a Japanese playwright who’s spent time in the West, and who was complaining to an English language paper out of Japan (the Japan Times), who cited the problem of hearing “the high ups decided it” and thinking he was being lied to, that someone lower did decide something, and had just guessed what the high ups wanted. To hear a nihonjin say that is fascinating, really. Though, I rebut by saying that we don’t know that it isn’t what the high ups wanted; he just wanted to know the right person to yell at, and as a result, he was efficiently denied such information.

Obviously, some excuses are justified. Others are not. From the outside it’s hard to tell the difference; that’s the point. People who are just making excuses aren’t in a hurry to announce that to the universe. This is, if not an issue of outright lying, quite a bit of stretching the truth.

But there are legitimate excuses in this world.

The Language of Apology

(わけ、wake): subjective reason. (Not to be confused with 理由 (riyuu) for reasons that are objective, scientific and otherwise beyond dispute)

申し訳 (もうしわけ、moushiwake): excuse. (“mousu” = polite verb for “to say.” As a result: “stated reason” = excuse)

言い訳 (いいわけ, iiwake): excuse. (Iu = plain version of uber-polite “mousu”)

詫び (わび, wabi): apology. (Native Japanese word; there are more elaborate kanji-based ones.)

礼儀 (れいぎ, reigi): etiquette/ courtesy.

敬語(けいご、keigo): honorific speech. (“Terms of respect,” keigo = respect + speech)

言い訳ない (いいわけない, iiwake nai): my apologies. (A less formal version)

申し訳無い (もうしわけない, moushiwake nai): my apologies. (Formal version.)

丁寧 (ていねい、teinei): courteous (adj.) (also read as polite).

丁寧語 (ていねいご, teineigo): courteous speech (also read as polite speech).

That’s all for now. Thanks for reading. – J

J Sensei

About J Sensei

Blogger, writer, linguist, former Japanese> English translator, rusty in French, experienced in Japanese, fluent English native. Writing for Technorati.com and various blogs. Skype: jeremiah.bourque (messages always welcome). E-mail: [email protected]
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3 Responses to On Excuses and Apologies

  1. Kurt says:

    If I need to email an apology to a Japanese person to say that something I said was untrue, what is the best way to do that? It was not intentional to be untruthful but I did not do enough research in my first email to him with a technical answer I gave him. Do you have a suggestion?

  2. Jeremiah Bourque says:

    Hi, just happened to see your post when logging into gmail. It’s been a long 3 months, family medical crisis (not me, though I had some surgery – my father.) I’ll give this my best shot…

    What a Japanese person wants to hear is sincerity. If you explain that you were mistaken on a matter of fact and unintentionally told him something that is not true, and you are apologizing, the vast majority of Japanese people will accept this in good grace. However, it would greatly assist your cause if you are, in addition to this, armed with the correct answer with the benefit of more research.

    If you fulfill all those conditions, you have done everything you can. Just remember that Japanese people act polite because of social norms – not because they don’t get upset. If someone decides to pop off, he/ she will. Control that which is under control and let the world come to you. That’s more Zen than Japanese, but I still think it is good advice in general. – J