On Not Apologizing in Japan


A few weeks ago, one of the 48 women who make up the pop group AKB48 was caught sleeping at her boyfriend’s house. Soon after that, she shaved off all of her hair- a traditional Japanese expression of regret- and made a tear-filled apology video to her fans.

Meanwhile, the new conservative government running Japan has hinted that it might “unapologize” for Japan’s use of captive women as sex slaves during World War II. It raises a lot of questions about gender roles, sex-shaming, and double standards, but in my sheltered world, I’ve got another apology to think about.

Lately I’ve embraced a daydream of an afterlife in which I finally understand what everyone else is doing. This basic fantasy found its zenith in the fleeting notion that I could simply look up everyone I knew on Wikipedia to find thorough, crowd-sourced outlines of their internal machinations; this was compounded by the dream that Jonathan Franzen would write all the entries.

Even among people who use the same words for feelings and ideas, life is a never-ending series of confusing propositions and clumsy negotiations, but try living without it. Learning to tolerate all that ambiguity is one of the reasons I went abroad: To see where I start and years of living in the English-speaking enclave of American culture ends.

Use Your Words
Last year, an English-speaking co-worker was put in charge of making sure I didn’t die, which would have been inconvenient for my office. She was thorough, but spoke in a distinctly Japanese math. Everything was parenthetical and algebraic. Nothing was straightforward, variables were constantly implied. My work schedule would be evoked rather than explained. The Japanese call it “reading the air,” a skill that English would best translate as “read her mind.”

Notoriously, I would have to sort out when “probably” meant “certainly” and when it meant “never.” Once, I said I’d meet with students on a Monday. She said the students might be busy. When I came to school Monday, the building was locked for a holiday.

She was a stickler. Once, I wrote out a paper to leave school at noon for a routine business trip. I checked the train schedule and found I could cut my wait time in half by leaving five minutes sooner. I asked to leave at 11:55. She checked the paper, saw I’d been approved for a noon departure, and shouted that I needed to respect rules. I had divided by zero.

“I cannot permit it. I CANNOT PERMIT THAT.”

Not being permitted was one of the many last straws since, but marked my first passively Japanese temper tantrum. I stood beside her desk as the clock dragged its dawdling hands to noon. She anxiously shuffled paper. A month later she scolded me for arriving at 8:29 for my 8:30 workday, insisting that “other teachers know where you live, so you have no excuse.”

The Drama
Recently she suggested that “perhaps” the English Club students would meet me at 4:15, but that “maybe” they had a study group, “I can’t be sure.” One student might, perhaps, come to computer room C, but perhaps now computer room C is locked for repairs, so they will use computer room B? “I’m not sure about that,” she said, “but maybe it’s the case, so, we don’t know when the students will come.”

“OK,” I said, desperately reducing her stream of fractions; “Can you unlock the security alarm so I can wait for them?” She said sure and then she didn’t do it, so I tripped the alarm at 4:15. She ran upstairs and, shouting in front of students, said that she told me to talk to her before coming here. “I TOLD YOU THAT.”

I, for the first time, and to the cheering of students, shouted back at her and flung my hands in the air dismissively.

I went downstairs and submitted my contracting papers for dramatic flair, refusing to renew – effectively canceling my life in Japan. I’d planned to do it anyway. It just felt more satisfying this way.

This mildly inflamed exchange would go unnoticed in America, where this is how you order breakfast on a busy day. But here, two teachers shouting at each other is blockbuster office gossip.

She didn’t speak to me for a week, which is a common approach to conflict resolution among many people here. Typically, you just avoid conflict at all costs. If someone seems to be sparking conflict – in this case, me – you avoid them. I’ve screwed up paperwork and felt like shaving my head to drive away the cold stares of co-workers who don’t say a word, but then again, they don’t say a word to me, anyway.

In the case of the dramatic doorway, staff members eventually held an intervention. I was told I was “one percent responsible” – after all, I did open a secured door without checking. Also, she was older, so I had to apologize. By this face-saving logic, the shop keeper may have been robbed, but maybe he owes the burglar a tiny apology for leaving all that money in his store?

This “1 percent responsible” line was told to me casually at first and then in a sit-down meeting in the conference room. I should apologize, save the wa, and complete my transformation into Japanese office culture, or I could be American.

“No,” I said. “I’m not doing that.”
“But she will not speak with you unless you apologize to her.”
“Well,” I said, “That sounds wonderful.”

OK. I’m petty.

It’s So Hard For Me To Say I’m Sorry
If I’m going to expect empathy from other people, then it’s only honest to extend empathy toward them, and yet, I’m failing here. Someone who has never transitioned into another culture can’t really relate to my experience. I know that. And I’m not angry about that. If she can’t communicate with me, she can’t imagine how confusing everything is. It’s quite simple for her to assume that so much more of her understanding is also part of my frame of reference. She can’t see that the heightened awareness of my surroundings carries a unique form of mental exhaustion.

But I just can’t bring myself to apologize to her, especially not because she’s older and so I must have been the one who made the mistake. That’s just not a part of this culture I am willing to take on. And that feels uncomfortable!

After all, shouldn’t I be judging my actions in this situation by the context that everyone I work with sees it – that there’s no harm in apologizing, that there’s no shame, and even a bit of strength, in taking the hit to my ego to save everyone in the office some tension?

It’s tough, explaining this to unsympathetic observers. I know I’m supposed to empathize with those who can’t empathize with me. But I make dozens of exhausting concessions every day, themselves becoming an added source of mental stress.

Refusing to apologize for losing my temper to an unsympathetic office tyrant was my one stand against the thousands of tiny stresses that have chiseled into my skin like fiberglass. I had to draw the line somewhere and make a stand for my idea of who I am, instead of getting lost into what I see as humiliating acquiescence.

Sometimes, you gotta not assimilate.

And Unicorns
Someday, perhaps we’ll end up in some enveloping consciousness where we can understand everything anyone has ever done with absolute empathy and forgiveness. The daydream starts with my resident office tyrant understanding how different my life here is from what I am used to; it extends outward to people I’ve loved who didn’t believe me when I told the truth. It extends to people who have suffered from my lack of courage, selfishness, ego or anger.

This fantasy is also my chance to understand the mystery of other people. It’s easy to assume we all act on the same impulses, desires, and sense of what’s right. But then you come abroad, and you realize there are a million ways for good intentions to manifest themselves. Maybe the source of all pain in a good-intentioned world is not articulating our intentions properly.

I want to cultivate empathy. I want to give people the benefit of the doubt, assume that everyone has had their own reasons for doing the things they have done, to understand not only why people have hurt me but the extent to which I have hurt people. And then I wonder, if my vision of a perfect afterlife is just one giant cluster of mutual understanding, am I doing enough to cultivate it while I’m still alive?

I dunno, but I never did end up apologizing.

For “This Japanese Life” on Facebook, “like” means never having to say you’re sorry. 

This entry was posted in Culture Shock. Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to On Not Apologizing in Japan

  1. Kati says:

    I think a major part of the journey that is life in Japan is becoming comfortable with the aspects of your own culture that you’re not willing to give up. We all have a point where if we bent any farther we’d break and it’s an excellent thing to not allow yourself to be pushed past that. This post, like many others before it, gives me the eerie feeling that you’re writing my life. I have absolutely been here.

  2. Catspaw says:

    “mildly inflamed exchange would go unnoticed in America” – This is wishful thinking. Current experience shows “mildly inflamed” is considered a warning sign and is added to previous conflicts. The result, every inflamed exchange is proof of lack of control. That can be used anyway the employer wishes.

    “thousands of tiny stresses that have chiseled into my skin like fiberglass”
    So beautifully stated. Faced with uncertainty, cryptic directives and engineered falsehoods, these are the perfect tools for manipulation. While ‘normal’ they are also ineffective and damaging to initiative and self confidence.

    “save everyone in the office some tension” – By allowing, unquestioned, the cause of the misinformation perpetuating the manager’s imprecision?

    The rule may well be: “Nothing is true or reliable. Please then anticipate and respond as if everything is in crisis. We employ puppies who chase their tales as a sign of respect, not thinking responsible team members. We apologize.”

    Crisis maker management is a form of management that does not manage crisis but creates crisis to ensure no one but a select few know what is happening and no one can act reliably, independently or get credit.

    You paint a disturbing picture of Japanese management at your facility. How many will acknowledge this is normal? Is it? For Japan? Just like America? Shock and Awe.

    • Josh says:

      Excellent response Catspaw. I actually just finished detailing how similar Japanese and American office culture is to one of my Japanese friends. When you get right down to it, the vast majority of office practices in the two countries are amazingly similar.

      Middle managers who have no idea what their job is, let alone what their subordinates job is, relish in gaining power from their underlings’ successes and shifting the guilt and the blame on the entire department if something fails instead of where the blame should rightly go (the not-so-stellar manager) or where the praise should go (the incredibly stellar team working beneath the incompetent manager).

      In Japan, just as in America, company meetings tend to do nothing more than disseminate information that was already decided and that everyone already knew. Nothing is gained. There is no possibility for change since the management won’t listen to the suggestions anyway. So, people mindlessly attend pointless meetings and waste highly-valued time in the interest of nothing.

      Even the lack of efficiency is pointedly similar. Higher ups that cannot even see their own feet and have never been to the same working space as those they are commanding make irrational decisions based on who knows what logic and then wonder why the product didn’t release on time. Underlings – those at the bottom of the food chain – are relegated to mindlessly following orders or getting probated, punished, or even fired for challenging the authority that their inept, puerile managers command. It’s a do-as-you’re-told-or-die kind of dichotomy.

      I have had some of the exact some atrocious experiences in my Japanese-based office as my American-based offices. They all essentially stem from the same concurrent issue: greedy, retarded, lazy old bastards who like to feel important bossing around incompetent, lifeless managers bossing around competent, intelligent, but given-up-on-life workers who no longer have any soul or hope. Those once competent workers eventually have any motivation, dedication, or innovation driven out of them early on and themselves become the same unmotivated, un-dedicated, soulless middle-managers that they once despised so much.

      I attended a bonenkai in Japan once. All I saw was the sacchou (big boss) being followed endlessly by a cohort of shamelessly praising young women who constantly threw out empty compliments to try and win some ego points with the boss and secure their potential move-up through the company. I recalled having attended a similar party in America where I saw the exact same thing. The only difference was that a couple men were also members of the primarily-female cohort following the division manager and department directors around trying to win their next promotion.

      Certainly, on the surface, there may be some differences. But when you delve into the matter just a little, everything seems to blend together and both countries’ corporate culture look exactly the same. Maybe I’m just biased, slanted, slighted, and bitter about my overtly and overly negative experiences in the corporate world. But that’s how I see it. Unfortunately.

  3. Paul says:

    Nice post, man. Brought me back to my ALT days…

    I’m glad you didn’t apologize. I know the Japanese may have their concepts of how things should be, ‘a la your “one percent therefore you should apologize” situation, but I think there are plenty of Japanese people who also realize that is BS. I had a teacher criticize me once in front of students (it was legitimate criticism, just not the way she did it in front of our class) and the other English teachers told me she was out of line and I should report her to the vice-principal.

  4. kamo says:

    Here’s the thing. As an ALT part of your job, part of the reason *Japanese* people with (relative) power and influence have decided to pay your wages, is in order to teach people here about modes of communication in other cultures. If everything in Japan was just peachy then your/our role wouldn’t exist. Not everyone on the ground will see it like that, but it’s true.

    You have to adapt a bit, of course, but if you go too far than frankly you wouldn’t be doing your job. 99% right seems like a pretty good effort, to be honest. She’s unlikely to change her views, but it sounds like you’re getting others on your side. If you can live with the fallout then stick to your guns and tell everyone else to consider this as a ‘teachable moment.’

    It’s worth noting that quite often ALT supervisors will be chosen purely on the basis of whichever JTE has the least other stuff going on (homerooms, clubs, etc). There’s often a few reasons they don’t have these things on their schedule. It’s not universal, of course, but there’s a pretty good chance that the ALT supervisor is the ALT supervisor because the rest of the staff don’t trust them with anything that’s actually important.

    P.S. I love this line – “..making sure I didn’t die, which would have been inconvenient for my office.”

  5. spartikiss says:

    Thanks! I’m currently in the same sort of situation at my school at the moment… Definitely a spark of hope. I’ve chosen to ignore the silent stares anyhow. It seems at least this way they at least acknowledge my existence. Otherwise I’d just get the silence without the stares.

  6. Sophelia says:

    I’m so sorry that you’re leaving (although I can understand why from the sounds of your workplace), I have enjoyed your Japan-blogging so much. But I see absolutely no reason why you should apologise, especially if you are leaving. Bullies and arseholes get away with it because it is easier for everyone else to just shut up and “ganman” until the rotten apple gets transfered out into another barrel. I think often other staff are secretly hoping the foreigner will be the one who says something, then they will all nod very seriously about how you don’t “get” Japan while flashing you the thumbs up under the table. I have some choice words planned for a certain teacher on my last day at work…

  7. Kat says:

    I’ve followed your blog for while and this post is another example of why I love your writing so much! It is just so succinct!

    Now, my 2 penny worth of opinion … She’s a bully. Shes not not emphasisizing or not being sensibl, she is a bully nor does she care about the wa of the office. This much is blatantly clear. So don’t emphasize with her. The problem here is that when you say “sorry” you actually mean “sorry, I was wrong” whereas I get the distinct impression that in Japan “sorry” means nothing. It is just sound, a phrase used to achieve an aim, like ringing your bicycle bell to get people out of the way.

    It’s your choice to apologise, your colleagues cannot put the burden of responsibility on you just because she is a pain to deal with. It is your choice.

    I would also suggest complaining about her not doing her job properly. She lied, and did not give you correct information to execute your job — which is her job. You’re leaving anyway, so might as Welles something to hel the next foreigner.

  8. melissa says:

    I *love* this. I’m a 1-year ALT and it’s a constant struggle to explain to friends at home, but more often to other ALTs (who effortlessly adapt to life here in a way I just can’t), the “mental exhaustion” that you so perfectly describe.
    “I had to draw the line somewhere and make a stand for my idea of who I am, instead of getting lost into what I see as humiliating acquiescence” — brilliant!

  9. Sarah says:

    This CRACKED me up:

    But she will not speak with you unless you apologize to her.”
    “Well,” I said, “That sounds wonderful.”

    Sometimes you just have to be honest. There is no other way.

    I too am a 1-year ALT, and your tantrums sound tame compared to the ones I had when I first started. I think the Japanese get stuck in disagreeable situations, especially if they are young and new, and have to suck it up. They get no say in the matter, which I really don’t think is fair.

    Alas, I had to stop caring so much about what they thought of me, try to do the best I could at work (despite wondering at least ten times a day, “what is going on?”), and plan fun weekends.

  10. Archana says:

    good for you. you signed up to work in another country, to provide a service and, in exchange, learn about another culture and travel. But unnecessary outbursts don’t need to be tolerated. You are being as accepting as possible – and yes, since you’re in Japan, they don’t need to care about your cultural sensitivities. But her behaviour was unprofessional.

  11. Pingback: On Staying Sane as an Expat in Japan | This Japanese Life. | 生命を外面九天です

  12. Pingback: On Being Bullied in Japan | This Japanese Life. | 生命を外面九天です

  13. Pingback: On Being Bullied in Japan | This Japanese Life. | 生命を外面九天です | R.B.Bailey Jr's Space

  14. Pingback: Doin’ It Right | 近海る(Kin Kairu)

  15. Steve Sharper says:

    I totally taught in China and every Japan blog I read has people experiencing fundamentally similar experiences. It’s been 2 and a half years now but every time I read something like this it just takes me right back and makes me feel so good that other people experienced the same frustrations!

Leave a Reply.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s