Apologies are common in Japan, indeed it is virtually a cliche about the country. But 2016 has seen some controversial public acts of contrition – notably parents standing up before the public to say sorry for their adult children’s alleged criminal offences.
Yuzuha Oka explores what lies behind this phenomenon.
Japan’s corporate apology culture is already well known and deeply rooted.
Many people will be aware of the shazai kaiken, or “apology press conferences”, where business chiefs read a profoundly apologetic statement lowering their heads and bowing deeply to their audiences.
But what are less known are the public apologies given by Japanese parents called on to stand up and be accountable for the actions of their children – no matter how old they are.
In late August, actress Atsuko Takahata delivered an emotional apology for her 22-year-old son, who was arrested over an alleged sexual assault. He was released without charge, but before the process even began his mother stood up to tell the public that she must hold partial responsibility for any alleged actions.
It echoed a 2013 apology by TV presenter Mino Monta, who even resigned from his shows when his 31-year-old son was arrested over an attempted theft.
“I feel a moral responsibility as a parent,” Mr Mino said at the press conference.
But this public ritual is by no means confined to celebrities. In July, after the shocking mass stabbing of 19 people at a home for people with mental disabilities in Sagamihara, the offender’s father issued an apology statement at his workplace.
Years earlier, in 2008, when a 25-year-old man killed seven in a crowded Akihabara shopping street his parents made an apology in front of their home.
“Our son has committed a grave crime. We sincerely apologise to those who were killed and injured,” they said.
The press shutters snapped as the parents bowed.
While the parental apology in Japan is of course linked to the psychology of simply taking responsibility, it is also a custom that traces its roots back to the samurai era.
Known as the Enza rule, the punishment of criminals’ family members took place in 15th and 16th Century Japan. The warrior samurai enforced their lords’ reign over the peasantry by extending punishments to transgressors’ families.
The notion of collective responsibility was extended even further during the Edo period, between the 17th and 19th centuries. Five neighbouring households were group into one unit and made responsible for each others taxes – and crimes.
Penalties were meted out to the entire unit if anyone committed an offence.
Although the law was abolished when the Edo period ended in 1868, its legacy encouraged a mindset of being responsible for “seken”, or “the public”, says sociologist Naoki Sato, professor emeritus at Kyushu Institute of Technology and an expert on seken studies.
He explains that seken is a notion very particular to Japanese society, where people are expected to follow a number of unspoken rules to live in harmony. One of them urges a criminal’s parents to feel responsible for seken even when they did nothing wrong themselves.
He also points out what he says are differences between Japanese and Western parent-child relationships. While parents in Western countries see their children as individuals, Prof Sato says Japanese parents tend to think of their children more like their possessions, and feel that they own their children’s misbehaviour.
Famous Japanese apologies
- In 1998, popular Japanese actress Yoshiko Mita apologised on behalf of her son when he was held over a drug offence. She also voluntarily stayed off the television for ten months.
- Earlier this year actress Reiko Takashima faced reporters on behalf of her husband, Noboru Takachi, who was arrested on a drugs charge. In her apology, she said she bore responsibility for “being his wife”.
- Japanese pop star Minami Minegishi shaved off her hair in 2013 as an apology after she was caught spending the night with her boyfriend. Her girl band AKB48 has a strict policy against dating.
Certainly it is rare to hear of parents apologising for the sins of their children globally.
When two students at the University of Oklahoma triggered a storm by reciting a racist chant, one of their parents issued a public apology. It was seen as remarkable enough that at least one commentator wrote an opinion piece asking if parents should apologise more for their children’s actions.
But in Japan the pressure to atone for the sins of your relatives can be so strong that families are sometimes hounded by journalists and vociferously condemned by the public.
In the 2008 Akihabara stabbing case, the criminal’s younger brother was reported to have committed suicide after suffering stress, having been chased by the media even after moving and changing jobs several times.
And Ms Takahata’s apology spurred a debate on whether parents should be held so responsible.
When TV Asahi’s Morning Show asked 50 people on the street about the case, 60% answered “it’s his own problem, not his mother’s”.
A similarly mixed reaction was also found on social media.
“I’m fed up with an apology when someone has not done anything. I want them to either urge their grown-up son to take responsibility or raise him up once again from zero,” said one user on Twitter.
Japanese youth are certainly concerned with taking control of their own lives but the culture of “shazai kaiken” and taking responsibility for seken is still deeply rooted in society.
So you can expect more apologies.
Published in BBC on 31 Dec 2016