The Japanese Art of the (Constant) Apology

When I’d written my Thought Catalog article on the ways a year in Japan had changed me, it wasn’t until after it had been published that I realized that I had made one glaring, inexcusable omission. Thankfully, my morning has given me two excuses (the second of which actually happened while I was writing this post!) to write about it in more detail and rectify my mistake.

I am extremely forthright about the fact that my Japanese ability is completely terrible. Because I had picked up German so quickly and easily and because I hadn’t had too terrible of a time taking three semesters of Arabic at university, I’d always thought that I had a knack for languages…until I started learning Japanese. However, there is one aspect of the Japanese language I have down to a science: the apology.

One of the pillars of Japanese social culture – at least from what I’ve experienced – is politeness, and what goes hand-in-hand with that is a near constant stream of すみませんs (“sumimasen”), which can mean either “excuse me” or “I’m sorry,” depending on the situation. It is hands down, no questions asked, the Japanese word I use most frequently.

Accidentally bump into someone? すみません!Someone accidentally bumps into you? すみません!One of the edges of papers on your desk is lying on your neighbor’s? Take more than a minute washing your lunch Tupperware in the office sink? Using the coffee machine while someone else is waiting? すみません、すみません、すみません!If you write a business letter in Japanese, every other sentence is an apology.

One of my neighbors has an overly affectionate, energetic shiba inu puppy, and today, while I was out for my run, he gave me a good excuse to break out my すみませんs. Just as I was running past their house, they were leaving for their daily morning walk. The puppy decided that an appropriate greeting would be to jump up on me. (This also effectively gave me a minor heart attack, as I always run with headphones in to distract myself from the fact that I hate running with a passion.) Of course, my neighbor was quick to pull the dog down and scold him, but not before I’d gotten out three or four apologies. Why did I apologize for my neighbor’s dog jumping up on me? Not a clue. Seemed like the right thing to do.

Then when I got to my office, one of the teachers was passing out cookies that he had bought on a recent trip to Tokyo. He’d had enough for everyone, but finished off a box just as he was about to give me one. I’d thought he’d run out. No big deal, I can live without a cookie. Still felt the need to apologize to him, though. Why? For wanting a cookie? Because I inconveniently brought up the number of people in the office to one more than the number of cookies he had? Dunno. Seemed like the right thing to do.

In fact, my supervisor has made the comment several times that I apologize so much, I sound like a native Japanese person. It’s bled into my other languages, as well. I can tell that I’ve become a much more apologetic person in English. When I visited my host family in Germany this summer, I apologized so much and for the littlest, most inconsequential things that my host mother finally asked me, “Why do you keep saying you’re sorry?! Please stop, there’s no reason for it!”

One positive effect, though: somehow I don’t see my family complaining for apologizing more than necessary when I head home for Christmas. Should cut down on any holiday filial squabbles…

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