I’m Sorry For Apologizing

The word apology is derived from the Greek word ἀπολογία (apologia), which is aApologyplato rhetorical (written) device to express self-defense. Famous are the apologias from Plato, Aristotle and Isocrates. The purpose is forgiveness and re-acceptation. Admitting one’s guilt and showing remorse is not necessarily part of an apologia; in Plato’s famous apologia, for example, Socrates denies accusations made against him. The English word “apology” is a semantic specialization of the Greek word. It inherently indicates remorse and acknowledgment of guilt. 

The Japanese word 謝罪(shazai) is composed of 謝 sha, to apologize/thank/refuse and 罪 zai, guilt/crime/fault. Because it has no connotation with apologia, it lacks the defending aspect. In this respect, the apology itself is emphasized, while the explanation or excuse is of minor importance or is even omitted.  Japanese also give a more extended and elaborate apology (Sugimoto, 1998).

Japanese people tend to apologize a lot compared to Western countries. For example, when Japanese people enter a room, they will say 失礼しますshitsureishimasu (“I’m being rude”, meaning “I’m sorry for disturbing you”) to the people present there. When they receive a cup of tea during a home visit, they will say どうもすみません dōmo sumimasen to apologize and express gratitude at the same time. And when they want to request something from someone higher in status, they will start with お忙しいところ申しわけありませんが…oisogashii tokoro mōshiwake arimasenga,…  (I’m very sorry (to bother you) when you are busy, but …). As you can see, there are many expressions to apologize, depending upon the context, the situation and the person you’re talking with.

Sony apologizes

Sony apologizes

Sometimes, Japanese people apologize a bit too much to our liking. You will probably remember the filmed apology of Minami Minegishi, member of the idol group AKB48. Minegishi shaved her head to show remorse – and, sobbing, apologizes for her thoughtless behavior and begs for forgiveness. What did she do wrong? She had a boyfriend. And the agency’s rules are clear: no dating.

In cross-cultural research, several scholars compared the American (and Western in general) way of apologizing with the Japanese zaisha. Observed differences are:

1. Apologizing for whose mistakes?

Overall, Japanese conduct manuals give far more attention to apology than do their U.S. American counterparts. (…) In U.S. American conduct manuals, people apologize only for their own mistakes, with the exception of women’s apologizing for the mishaps of their spouses, young children or pets. By contrast, in Japanese conduct manuals, the readers are told to apologize for offenses committed by a greater range of people beyond themselves. – Sugimoto, 1998

2. Excuses

[I]n Japanese, shazai ‘apology’ is divided broadly into two types, which are ii wake ‘excuse’ and shazai suru ‘apologize’– a classification that does not exist in English. – Kashima (translator), 2009
This is something that I regularly notice as a Belgian: an apology of my fellow Belgians is almost always followed by a reason why one should apologize. “I’m sorry, but …”. The apology is a justification for their behavior or mistake.
The Attribution Theory (Ross,1993; etc.) says that people misattribute the cause of outcomes to the person rather than the environment. An apology shifts the attribution back to the environment. – Benjamin Ho (2005)


3. Non-verbal behavior

The Japanese apology is accompanied by a bow (お辞儀 ojigi). Similar to the bow when greeting, asking for a favor or thanking,  the length and depth of the bow depends on – in the case of apologizing – the degree of caused damage and the formality of the situation. The most extreme one is dogeza 土下座, kneeling on the ground and touching the floor with your head. Don’t take following video too serious.

4. Sincerity

Americans see apologizing as a recognition of personal blame. When they do apologise, it is with truthfulness and sincerity. If not, the apology is not a “real” apology. The Japanese, however, perceive sincerity (素直 sunao) differently. An apology belongs to the domain of tatemae 建前, the public attitude, and is not necessarily compatible with the inner feelings or personal opinion (本音 honne, private thought).
Sincerity of apology has different connotations in the two cultures with the Americans preoccupied with the problematics of wholeheartedness and the Japanese focused on the more attainable externality of submission to order and return to harmonious relationship -Wagatsuma & Rosett (1986)

5. Legal function

Wagatsuma and Rosett (1986) also pointed out that apologizing is indispensable in court. In traditional Japan, disputes were mediated outside court, and damaged relationships were restored by non-legal means like apologies. The emphasis on apologising continues in the modern Japanese law system. Unlike in western countries, where an apology is admission of guilt, the Japanese

seem to think it is better to apologize even when the other party is at fault (…). Japanese criminal offenders are said to be more ready than Americans to admit their guilt and throw themselves on the mercy of an offended authority.

In conclusion, what to do when you commit a mistake in Japan?

Measure the degree of injury inflicted by yourself or someone belonging to your “group”, choose the right expression and bow, avoid excuses, if not guilty apologize anyway, and don’t forget to apologize in front of the judge when accused of a crime.


– Maddux, William W., Peter H. Kim, Tetsushi Okumura, and Jeanne M. Brett. “Cultural Differences in the Function and Meaning of Apologies.” International Negotiation 16, no. 3 (January 1, 2011): 405–25.
– thefreedictionary.com
– Apology Translation in Diplomacy: Case Study of Prime Minister Abe’s Apology Regarding “Comfort Women” PDF 
– Sugimoto, Naomi. “Norms of Apology Depicted in U.S. American and Japanese Literature on Manners and Etiquette.” International Journal of Intercultural Relations 22, no. 3 (August 1998): 251–76.
– Sugimoto, N. “A Japan-U.S. Comparison of Apology Styles.” Communication Research 24, no. 4 (August 1, 1997): 349–69.
– A Rational Theory of Apologies Benjamin Ho Poster PDF
-Wagatsuma, H., and Rosett, A.R.”The implications of apology: law and culture in Japan and the United States”, Law and Society Review 20 (1986): 461-498.

2 thoughts on “I’m Sorry For Apologizing

  1. Very astute! That Japanese Tradition video has long been one of my favorites, but I hadn’t thought of many of the broader implications of an apology. The next time people ask me about cultural differences, this might be something I bring up. Thanks!

  2. Pingback: Living in Japan: Pros and Cons | nippaku

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