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The art of saying sorry in Japan

By Kiko Itasaka, NBC News producer 
More than 8 million Toyota owners had been waiting for an explanation and an apology. They were kept waiting for a reason -- saying sorry is no simple matter in Japan.

The art of expressing regret is very nuanced. There are different levels of saying sorry, ranging from a simple "excuse me" to "please accept my most humble regrets," and these words are accompanied with bows of varying degrees. The degree of apology is often carefully considered.
 
On Tuesday, in heavily accented and carefully phrased English, Toyota's president Akio Toyoda apologized for letting down his customers. It is not unusual for a Japanese executive to take responsibility. In fact it is very typically Japanese. Toyoda's departure was to issue his statement in English. Normally a Japanese executive would speak in Japanese with simultaneous translation rather than be embarrassed by less-than-perfect English. Toyota is clearly desperate to reach out to its global audience and in particular, the huge American market.
 
Separately, in the Washington Post, Toyoda accepted that his company had let down their customers. "As president of Toyota, I take personal responsibility" he wrote. That is why I am personally leading the effort to restore trust in our world and in our products."
 
Long history of apologies
Japan has a long history of corporate personal apology in Japan. In 1985, following the crash of Japan Airlines flight 123, the president of JAL Yasumoto Tagaki assumed full responsibility for the accident, the worst single-airplane incident in aviation history. Of the 524 passengers only four survived.  Takagi went to the extraordinary length of personally visiting the families of the victims. It was only after he had fulfilled this obligation and offered one last public apology that he resigned. Another JAL employee, a maintenance manager apologized in a more extreme manner: he committed suicide.
 
The Japanese government has yet to apologize directly to the "Comfort Women," Chinese and Korean and Filipino women who were forced to provide sexual services for Japanese soldiers during World War II. The Japanese government has expressed regret and deep remorse, and has offered forms of financial compensation, without actually outright apologizing. Again, the degree of contrition has been much-debated. They may well be sorry, but in a measured manner. 
 
The art of apology is an intrinsic part of Japanese culture. When you ask a shopkeeper for help, or when you bump into someone on the inevitably crowded trains, you say "sumimasen." A direct translation of this phrase is "excuse me," but a more a more accurate rendition is "I am so sorry to bother you."

Apologizing is as common as saying please and thank you. It is a way of maintaining harmony in social situations. If you are the first to leave work in a Japanese office, you say "Osaki ni sitsuree simasu," which means "I commit the great rudeness of leaving first."
 
And apologies are a part of the business world for Japanese companies. A corporate leader accepts responsibility for all accomplishments and failures of his business, and because Japan is not a litigious society, they worry less about lawsuits. Toyota's apology was carefully planned. It may have been a long time coming, but there was a lot of planning and plotting before Toyota expressed its regrets.
 
At his press conference Toyoda said, "We will do everything in our power to regain the confidence of our customers."

He ended his statement with a deep and proper bow. His message: he is truly sorry.