Gutsy Japanese Diplomat Tests Culture of Apology

On April 22, after being rescued by commandos and telling a roomful of reporters what it was like to be held captive for 127 days by Marxist rebels, Morihisa Aoki did what anyone would do: He called his mother.

"She told me that I was a hero," Japan's former ambassador to Peru recalled in an interview this week. "I immediately warned her, 'Be careful, Mum, tomorrow it will change. The personal criticism will start right away.' So in a way I was prepared."

But no one could have been completely prepared for what happened to Mr. Aoki, an imposing, white-haired man with a baritone voice. The media, echoing public and official opinion, has shredded his hero image, criticizing the diplomat for behaving badly during and after his captivity. His worst sin was not apologizing for the crisis - preferably with a bow and some tears - at his post-release press conference.

It would have been best, in the eyes of some Japanese observers, if Aoki had offered his resignation right then, something he ended up doing almost three weeks later, as he was being called to testify before a committee of Japan's upper house of parliament. The combination of apology and resignation is known here as "taking responsibility."

In Aoki's view, his treatment by Japan offers insights into how this country sees itself at the end of the 20th century - its officials are still expected to maintain a diffident public persona and "face" conflict by moving in the opposite direction. At the same time, cases where other leaders have taken responsibility more quickly than Aoki show there is a right way and a wrong way of managing crises in Japan.

The Aoki incident and other cases have sparked criticism of the tradition of leaders sacrificing themselves for the mishaps that occur on their watch. But even though some Japanese officials are trying to undo the regulations and opaque customs that make operating here difficult for foreigners, the enduring insistence that officials take responsibility indicates how aspects of Japan's corporate and political culture remain entrenched.

The past few months have seen a series of scandals erupt in Japan's financial industry. Corporations have long maintained shady relationships with gangsters and racketeers who have extorted money from the institutions while performing some duties that executives prefer to outsource, such as intimidating union leaders or tenants who refuse to vacate properties slated for development.

Earlier this month, prosecutors began investigating Tokyo-based Dai-Ichi Kangyo Bank Ltd., the nation's third-largest commercial bank, because it and an affiliate loaned more than $250 million to one alleged racketeer. Within a week, the bank's top two executives had resigned, along with seven other senior advisers. At a press conference announcing these moves, the executives bowed deeply in apology.

More than a dozen executives have left their posts at Tokyo-based Nomura Securities Co., Japan's biggest brokerage, to take responsibility for a similar scandal involving links to the same racketeer.

Taking responsibility in this way dates back at least to Japan's feudal era, when leaders felt compelled to sacrifice their lives to atone for mistakes. To this day, some Japanese commit suicide as a way of taking responsibility for perceived personal or professional failures.

But stepping down does not always involve coming clean. "I think taking responsibility by quitting at a relatively early stage means concealing what has been done rather than disclosing it," says Haruo Shimada, a professor of economics at Tokyo's Keio University.

Other critics say that the immediate sacrifice of a scapegoat often means that companies and bureaucracies do not have to pursue the sort of fundamental change that would prevent a problem from recurring. In this way the corporation or agency can minimize disruption, investigation, and reform at the relatively minor expense of a few careers.

In many cases, those who take responsibility can stay with their organizations as advisers and consultants. In the political world, taking responsibility is no impediment to future success. A one-time finance minister named Ryutaro Hashimoto took responsibility for an earlier scandal involving Nomura and left his Cabinet post in 1991. He became prime minister.

Aoki says he knew that he would get in trouble for not being more contrite when meeting the press on April 22. But he reasoned that he was addressing an international audience, not a Japanese one, "so naturally I didn't behave apologetically.

"My job is to promote my country, so I wanted the whole world to know that all the hostages, including 24 Japanese, were not crushed by the threats.... But some in Japan expected me to just apologize, you know, with my head down, and even weep. It's a difference of perception."

Lurking behind the backlash that greeted him back home, he adds, is the frustration that Japan's post-World War II pacifism cannot protect it from attack. He believes some Japanese, in effect, wanted to blame him for letting his Lima residence be seized by terrorists during a Dec. 17, 1996, reception celebrating the birthday of Emperor Akihito.

The diplomat accuses such thinkers of "hibernating," and sees himself as a Japanese with a more realistic view of "this volatile international community." In meeting the press after the dramatic raid, he says, "I thought it was my duty to show to the world the 'guts' of the Japanese."

Speaking then about the solidarity and toughness of the hostages, he scandalized many observers in Japan by smoking, underscoring his inadequate contrition. "You don't apologize [while] smoking," he says.

When he explained his rationale for this behavior to his superiors at Japan's Foreign Ministry, he adds, "They frowned at me." The media was more vociferous, with the tabloid press alleging imperious behavior during the crisis, which he denies, and more mainstream commentators criticizing him for conduct unbecoming a diplomat. Aoki acknowledges that his behavior must have struck his fellow citizens as "very arrogant, very un-Japanese."

But now that he has had more opportunities to explain himself, he says, he believes that the public and the press are taking a more understanding view of his thinking and his behavior. For now, that is hard to judge. Meantime, his superiors at the ministry are considering how to handle his offer to resign from the organization altogether.

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