I recently saw an article on this on the Internet, and in preparation for this blog I googled the following Japanese words out of curiosity. Many of the results were individual postings written for people who wanted to know how to order in restaurants, etc. Below is my personal take on the nuances of these words.
In Japanese there are several phrases for the English “I’m sorry.” One is sumimasen, which can be a thanks, or a quick apology when you inadvertently bump into someone, or a way to attract the attention of the staff in a shop or restaurant. It literally means “There is no end to this”, which I interpret as meaning, “I can never express my gratitude or my culpability sufficiently for this feeling I have to be fully discharged”. Why, then, is it used so casually? It’s a conveniently short word, much shorter than its full meaning, and as such is not necessarily used in its full sense, but as a quick expression, much as we would say “Excuse me”. It has a regional component too; in the area where I live it is routinely used as both thanks and apology, even as a type of goodbye, and signifies the continuing relationship of the two parties. When I used it in Tokyo, after living for years in my present area, people said, “Don’t say that. What are you apologizing for?” so the thanks component perhaps is not as strong in the Tokyo area.
Another word is gomen nasai, which has a stronger sense of personal culpability. It is grammatically related to another phrase, gomen kudasai, which means “Please forgive me [for disturbing you]”, and can include such diverse meanings as “anybody home?” or “I’m leaving now.” Gomen means “your forgiveness” or “to avoid”(in the sense of letting things pass), and the endings mean “please” on various levels of politeness.
A third word or concept, o kino doku, “your feeling is poisoned” or “you must feel terrible”, is more related to sorrow or grief for a situation which is causing pain, and doesn’t generally have personal culpability attached to it. This expresses compassion for calamity, illness, etc. and this is one of the meanings of “I’m sorry” in English too, a wider meaning than simply apologizing for something you did.
Japanese is known as a nation or language where people apologize a lot. It’s generally recognized as one of the oils of society, which keep everything running smoothly. On TV, when bad things happen, the reportage is often accompanied by a group of bowing men (exposing their bald spots, which is possibly a symbol of their vulnerability!) who have agreed to “take responsibility” for the bad thing. The word for “responsibility” in Japanese, sekinin, literally means “to recognize blame”. Instead of “taking responsibility” it might be more accurate to say that they are “assuming liability”, though they don’t necessarily do that in practice either. Perhaps I will devote another later blog to this concept of “taking the blame” and how different it is from the Western concept of responsibility, which literally means “the ability to respond”. It’s way too complicated for the present topic, so I will leave it here.
I’d like to tell a story in this context of two reactions I got from Japanese people. Once I was in an office block, and got lost. I asked a receptionist in a random office for directions. She gave them to me, and I said a few words to her about how hard to understand the building was. She responded, in English, rather irritably, “It’s not my fault.” Now I had heard this phrase (and uttered it) many times, but I never expected it to come from a Japanese person. The response I expected, rightly or wrongly, after so long in Japan, was more like in the second case: I had my luggage lost on flights in the US. I told every appropriate official of the airline in the US, and it was obvious that each person to whom I was attempting to give my home address (in hopes that the bag would eventually be returned to me) didn’t really care, on an individual level, about my problem. It was just another glitch in a whole day of glitches. But I didn’t demand an apology of those people, because I knew that my problem wasn’t “their fault”. However, when I arrived in Japan and told someone about my lost bag, the person immediately apologized. I realized it could not have been any connection to her that the bag was lost, and that she was apologizing on behalf of the airline she was employed by, and also that she thought an apology would clear the air and make me feel better. It did. I breathed a sigh of relief that I was back in Japan. I think that apologies here are not necessarily made on an individual basis, to acknowledge one’s own culpability, but often on behalf of some larger entity.
The Japanese are emotionally conditioned to accept an apology as an attempt to make the other person feel better -- not necessarily to mollify them, however, as we see in one response to a rote apology, sumimasen de sumu to omou no ka (“Just because you apologized, that doesn’t mean everything’s OK.”). Whether these types of apologies are just a cynical way of manipulating others’ feelings, is a good point, but it’s common. They are often “tape- recorded” messages even though they are spoken by flesh-and-blood people. I am reminded of the announcements one often hears in the train in connection with a delay. Whether it’s a minute or an hour, the announcements seem the same. Go meiwaku o kakete moushi wake arimasen. (“We are very sorry to cause you trouble.”) Sounds nice; it may be programmed, but as Dave Barry said in his book on Japan, “But what a nice thing to program.” I’m sure, hearing this, many passengers are relieved even a little in a trying situation.
My favorite of all these Japanese phrases is o kino doku. It expresses sadness that the other person (or everyone) has been hurt by the situation, without (in either culture or language) admitting one’s own fault. The unpleasant situation may be partly one’s fault, but by no means all of it. One intends to express regret that things have come to this pass. Blaming others, and taking the blame, don’t necessarily fix things.
In Japan it seems that the feeling is important, not that of the individual but that of the group. These kinds of phrases are intended to smooth down the ruffled feathers, to bring the situation back to an even keel, so everyone can move on. This may seem misguided and even hypocritical to Westerners. But every society has its own way of getting past things. It’s not necessary for Westerners to judge Japanese and say that they apologize “too much”. What amount would be about right?