A special envoy of the Bush Administration arrived here yesterday and thrice used the words that Japan has been waiting to hear: all apologies.
Adm. William J. Fallon, the vice chief of naval operations for the US Navy, stood on the sunny tarmac of Yokota Air Base and apologized for the crash of submarine USS Greeneville into a Japanese fishing trawler off the coast of Honolulu on Feb. 9, which killed nine people.
"I sincerely and humbly request - on behalf of the United States Government, the United States Navy, and the American people - that the government and the people of Japan accept our apology for the tragic loss of the Ehime Maru on Feb. 9."
Admiral Fallon also said he was carrying a letter of apology from President Bush that he was to present to Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori last night.
US officials seemed hopeful that a full-blown apology would quell rumblings here that American expressions of regret over the incident fell short of the clear and sincere "we're sorry" Japan deserved.
But the father of one of the teenage victims told Japanese journalists on Monday that he would not feel satisfied unless USS Greeneville Cmdr. Scott Waddle personally apologizes to the grieving families.
And, many here note, words of apology sound different on this side of the Pacific. "Sorry," virtually as common as hello and goodbye, is used under much different circumstances than in the US, and doesn't imply guilt so much as courtesy and responsibility. An apology is considered a route to averting conflict, something of a cardinal virtue in Japan. And as such, some Japanese are still suspicious as to why it took so long to say sorry, and why the word isn't coming from the man they assume is responsible.
"In Japan, we apologize even before we know all the facts," says Yukio Akatsuka, a Japanese cultural critic. "To apologize and to ease people's feelings is normal ... even though it might not be the person's responsibility."
Mr. Akatsuka, like many here, viewed the quandary as indicative of the cultural chasm between Japan, where most differences are settled out of court, and America, the most litigious country on earth. Commander Waddle has not spoken publicly on the incident ahead of a martial court inquiry that begins March 5.
"Since it is clear that is was the commander's responsibility even before the trial begins, he should apologize. Based on the logic of Japanese society, it is expected," Akatsuka adds. "Many Japanese think that he should at least say one word. To keep silence appears discourteous."
But it is the gap between America's right to remain silent and Japan's shame on the one who remains silent that is causing the most friction and misunderstanding.
In the US, the right not to incriminate oneself is understood to be reason enough for a person under investigation to refrain from public statements. But in Japan, the failure to apologize would only make the severity of the alleged wrongdoing worse.
Observers here see the absence of an apology from Waddle as evidence that Americans see an apology as admission of guilt that can be used against them in a court of law. In Japan, quite the opposite is true.
"Apologizing first is an advantageous strategy. It is very common to say sorry without any feelings of guilt. On the contrary, it is an expression of innocence and sincerity of the offending side," says Daizaburo Hashizume, a professor of sociology at the Tokyo Institute of Technology.
Mr. Hashizume says that has roots in the era of Japan's shogunates, when the emperor - not law interpreted by judges - could decide guilt or innocence.
Apologizing for the deed in question, whether the accused was actually responsible for it, was certain to soften the punishment.
Even today, offering an apology at the get-go of a dispute is a sort of code word that allows the parties to agree that they will settle their differences out of court. In that sense, says Hashizume, it is the opening gambit in a game of bargaining over terms of settlement.
"The apology is a strategy in the process of negotiation," he says. Instead of relying on criminal or civil law, "here we say, 'It's my fault, I'm sorry,' in order to prevent the beginning of a lawsuit. We try to coordinate everything after the accident happens and find a settling point that everybody can accept."
Traditional ways of making amends are still prevalent in many corners of the developing world. In the Middle East and Africa, livestock, food, and "blood money" are considered proper tender for making amends between the families of perpetrators and victims.
But Japan's ritualized system of apologizing stands out among developed nations. And while neighboring Asian cultures like China and Korea also put emphasis on the virtue of apology, Japan appears to place more importance on the act of apologizing than almost any other.
"Sorry" is heard so often - a sort of "excuse me" before one starts to speak - and is also used as a formal goodbye, a term which literally translates to, "Sorry for bothering you." Apologies are ranked as to whether they should be made in person or on paper, with moderate or deep bows, or, for the most severe injury, the dogeza. In that, the apologizer gets down on both knees with head bowed to the floor, a gesture said to have been handed down from the time of samurai warriors, when an on-the-floor bow suggested subservience - and being disarmed.
The dogeza, many here say, would have been the appropriate behavior if the person responsible for the submarine crash had been Japanese.
"Japanese people understand that the commander cannot apologize by dogeza, but he should at least apologize with his hands on the table and his head down," says Satoshi Kamata, an author and journalist.
The US had made several statements of regret and sorrow over the tragedy prior to Fallon's visit, beginning with Secretary of State Colin Powell's telephone call to Japan's foreign minister the day after the accident. But it seems that without using the words like "apologize," many people felt the sentiments weren't for real.
The high value placed on apology impacts almost all sectors of life. Politicians ask for forgiveness from their parties and constituents the minute scandals break; to simply vow to fight to prove one's innocence would be viewed as arrogant. Companies regularly apologize to shareholders when earnings are poor, often with a collective bow from the board of directors.
"If a company put out 10 percent earning last year and 12 percent this year, and next year it goes back down to 10 percent, will the president apologize?" poses Mitsuru Shinozaki, spokesman of Keidanren, Japan's influential business lobby. "In Japan, yes, maybe he will. Unless he says 'sorry' no one can put blame anywhere. If there's a fire that needs to be extinguished and if there is someone suitable to do it, he is supposed to do it."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society