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BEING SORRY


Hello, everyone, and apologies for being late to wish everyone a happy Solstice. This year I was in Australia for the winter solstice. In the Northern Hemisphere we are at the top of the Ferris wheel of the year, and from now on nights will be getting longer and it will be getting colder, but not so in the Southern Hemisphere -- it’s all uphill from here. I admit that it was rather refreshing to be in a chilly place for awhile; it never got below about 10 or 12 degrees in Queensland, where I was. Returning to a hot and muggy monsoon Japan, I was reminded of my real life.


One new thing on the website, which I hope you will look at, is my husband’s new venture of custom private tours of Kyoto and surrounding areas. He is very good at arranging, planning, and setting up any kind of tour you want, and has already done a couple of guided tours which were quite successful. If you click on where it says “More” in the contents, the information will pop up. Thanks for looking at this.


Please note the changed photos on the website. The top photo is of an Australian beach, and a wintry sunrise. The self-portrait is of me at Barron Falls in North Queensland, which usually has much more water than this. The bottom photo is just a homely shot of flowers on my windowsill, a little “In Memoriam” of a good friend, an Australian potter who made the flower vase.


I have wanted to write about the word “sorry”, and its various uses and nuances in Japanese versus Western culture, for a while now. It may be one reason that I fit so well into this culture that apology, and thanks, come naturally to me. However, I don’t always mean by this word that I’m culpable, or that anything is my fault. It’s a way of saying, “What a pity” in many cases.


The Japanese words which approximate both meanings of the word (apologizing for something you did wrong, and a general feeling of sorrow about a situation) are many and have many varied nuances. “Gomen nasai” or simply “gomen” is the usual word for the first kind of sorry. Another word that is very common is “sumimasen” meaning “there is no end to it”, as in obligations, reason for apology, etc. It is used in my neighborhood as a substitute for “thank you”, that’s how common it is, and here it is a reminder of continued obligations among villagers -- but when I used it in Tokyo, my friends told me to stop apologizing all the time. That was one of the first inklings I had that Japanese words had different meanings in different parts of the country. Slightly more polite words include “Moshi wake gozaimasen”, which literally means “There is no reason for me to speak”, or “Gomen kudasai”, which can also have a light “Excuse me” nuance, for example when calling out to announce one’s presence at the entryway of a house. In the second form of “sorry”, we have “o-kinodoku” which literally means “You must have a poisoned feeling”, or “zannen desu” which is closer to the English “Too bad” or “What a pity”.

Japanese is a language and culture where apology plays a vary large part in smoothing over hurt feelings and problems. If something occurs that raises eyebrows in politics, corporate culture, or social circles, it is natural for the most senior person available, even if he had no involvement with the actual incident, to spend a lot of time bowing deeply to TV cameras and newspaper photographers. The act of apologizing is supposed to put everyone’s feelings back on an even keel. It’s an acknowledgement, not precisely of wrongdoing, but that the harmonious social order has been upset. In extreme cases the top people or person may be required to take his own life in order to right a wrong, though this is not so common today.


If it is felt that someone ought to apologize, and they didn’t, the wrongdoing and its ramifications will be politely ignored until order is restored, especially if it isn’t fully understood. Western people who work as teachers in schools, for example, may vent their emotions after a difficult lesson in the staff room, but they had better not expect sympathy. Everyone is embarrassed by such an outburst, be it tears or raging, and imagines that the person who regrettably “lost their cool” is embarrassed too, thus the quickest way to bring things back normal is to ignore them. This can be hard to understand for a foreigner used to being patted on the back when upset. It’s happened to me and to several of my friends. The group’s feelings are paramount in these situations, and everyone wants to regain the harmonious feeling of “everything is OK” as quickly as possible.


If a person has some kind of individual problem, sorrow, or tragedy that is understandable, the o-kinodoku reaction is usually forthcoming. Especially if the afflicted person is stoic about it, and is doing the expected thing. Examples could be a hospitalization in the family, a demented or bedridden elderly person who is being cared for at home, or an accident or disaster. It’s much more common for a person to receive sympathy for these things than to be congratulated for some kind of good news or achievement. If he is enduring some great affliction without unduly complaining or running away, he may be awarded what I call the “taihen medal” by those surrounding him. If your neighbors, who are of course aware of your plight, say “Taihen desu ne” (“That’s a lot to bear”), that can make you feel better, because your way of facing your plight is being admired. It’s rare, except in secret or among relatives, for actual help with the problem to be forthcoming, but this little phrase, and the implication of solidarity that it brings, can apparently go a long way to mollifying the feelings which arise in such situations.


These things may be changing, as so many things in Japanese society are, or they may be different in other parts of Japan. I only know how things unfold in my own little corner. Learning these things has often been painful and difficult. But understanding at least a little of the things that make Japanese people apologize or commiserate with each other is an important part of understanding what makes these people tick.

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catherine.haskin
catherine.haskin
Jul 05, 2023

I have not heard the o-kinodoku here in Tokyo. Perhaps it is a regional saying. I find it difficult to accept the sumimasens when someone has deliberately done something wrong, and just bowing in front of cameras will not make it better. Having the boss do the bowing instead of the culprit is worse. Of course, having the boss do it is supposed to mean that the whole organization recognizes the wrong, but that is not usually the case. They just bow and go back to the way they were before. Usually nothing changes. It is just a way to say "sorry, not sorry," meaning sorry we got caught, but not sorry for having done it (or not sorry enough…

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alex.m.kent
alex.m.kent
Jul 03, 2023

Here at home in the US - and particularly in my own home - I often slip up on giving appropriate expressions of empathy (in contrast to sympathy, a distinction with which I often struggle). I have been told that when a person is experiencing distress, the most important thing is to "validate" that person's feelings. I guess the Japanese taihen desu ne represents that kind of validation. I know I'm supposed to say, "Gee, that must be tough for you," and I have to mean it. My natural inclination is to offer a way out of the suffering that the other person is experiencing. But that seldom works unless the person is specifically asking for a solution.

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In English I have noticed recently the use of "Sorry, not sorry" which I take to mean "you might be in a sorry situation but I'm not"...a kind of acknowledgement of the other's situation but also a kick in the teeth that you don't feel the same way.

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