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Japan: Apologetic (Political) Culture

Taro Aso apologizes to party fellows, 21 July 2009

Today, I, Taro Aso, decided to dissolve the House of Representatives and seek a popular mandate.  [I]mprovident statements I have made caused mistrust among the public and damaged its confidence in politics. […]

This is also with regard to the disunity within the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). My shortcomings have created mistrust among the public, and as the President of the party, I should like to extend my most sincere apologies.

Thus were the words amplified by apologetic bows the Japanese prime minister uttered at a press conference 21 July. In my ears they sounded like the admission of failure and I expected Aso to announce his resignation the next minute.

He did not. After a coup withing his own party failed, Aso is staying firm and is propping up the party for the upcoming general elections.

Japanese politics of recent years can be read as a history of apologies. Aso’s predecessor Yasuo Fukuda offered his apologies for not living up to MPs’ expectations when he stepped back a year ago.  So did Shinzo Abe when he  resigned and left the prime minister’s office for the hospital two years ago. Earlier, Toshikatsu Matsuoka who was agriculture minister in the Abe cabinet apologized in a suicide note for the trouble he had caused to the Japanese people. Matsuoka committed suicide in a scandal involving political donnations.

Apologizing is crucial in Japanese society, not only in politics. A Swiss elevator manufacturer saw its reputation badly damaged also because it failed to promptly apologize for a deadly elevator accident.

A Japanese friend put it like this. We in the West try to defend ourselves and justify our actions when something bad has happened. Apologies are regarded as the admission of guilt and therefore avoided. In Japan, however, you first need to apologize regardless of the circumstances. You can still make your case afterward, if necessary.

Good luck with that, Mr Aso.