When to Apologize
Before we get into some of the key phrases for apology below, we need to go over the most important part: when you need to use them!
The key to apology in Japan is understanding that it's not about admitting guilt or culpability. In fact, nobody even really cares who's wrong. Rather, Japanese society is built around group harmony, and a vital point of working well with a group is developing an awareness of when someone in the group has been inconvenienced, whether it was by something you did or something you were tangentially related to.
And that is the key point: the threshold isn't physical or emotional damage. It's inconvenience. Of course you'd apologize to a stranger if you stepped on their foot. But it's also polite to apologize to them if you're taking a long time on the convenience store copy machine, or if you just got in someone's way while trying to step through a door.
Now, at this point, people who've lived in Japan will be flailing their arms in the air and complaining that there are Japanese people who will step on your foot on the train or waste ages of your time and say nothing by way of apology. Of course there are. There are rude and inconsiderate people everywhere on Earth, and Japan is no exception. If you want to model yourself after rude and inconsiderate people, you are by all means free to do so. But if you do, you can't complain when you find you're about as well-regarded as the guy who stepped on your toe and walked away.
Let's go back to the wa—harmony. Inconveniencing someone is putting ripples in the surface of that harmony. Think of it like a disturbance in the Force, and pretty much everyone in Japan is Force-adept. As long as that disturbance is there, everyone feels it.
Apology is the universal ointment for fixing that disturbance. And that's all it is: an ointment. The people who feel inconvenienced just need to understand that you're aware of it—a simple acknowledgement of how they feel, which is all they really want. An apology lets everyone feel validated, then get back to their lives and move on.
Your objective, then, in delivering an apology is to make the person receiving it feel you understand their feelings. And the clearest indicator is the point at which they feel awkward enough that they want you to stop apologizing. Of course, a small inconvenience just needs a small apology. But for a big one, keep apologizing until they tell you to stop... then keep going a little more.
In Japan, rather than looking down on a person who apologizes, people are generally thankful that someone has stepped in and smoothed things over. In fact, the ability to deliver a good, unwavering apology can be thoroughly impressive in business and social situations. Even in the case of major indiscretions, the way the apology is delivered can determine a lot of how well the offending party is treated in the future.
However, this also leads to big problems when the apology isn't forthcoming. A lack of apology is taken as a sign of inability to accept responsibility, a lack of awareness of one's own culpability for any discomfort felt by the group, and an attempt to blame others for one's own mistakes. In other words, in Japan, the less you apologize, the more you're held in the wrong.
'I didn't know!'
Now, of course there are people in Japan who don't notice when they've disturbed the wa. They even have a name for it: "KY," for kuuki yomenai. It means, "Unable to read the air."
While this specific term peaked in popularity in the mid-2000s, the concept isn't new. The irony, of course, is that KY people aren't even aware that they're out of step, because everyone else is too afraid of disturbing the wa to confront them.
Since "reading the air" comes down to perception of cultural norms, most people who move to Japan from other countries end up starting out KY by default. The reality is that, as much as we may think otherwise, common sense isn't common; it's cultural, and even within one culture it varies to some extent from person to person. The trick is learning what counts as "common sense" in Japan—because most people won't teach it to you, since they just assume you already know.
This can put you at a huge disadvantage: it means that just because nobody's telling you that you've caused an inconvenience, it doesn't mean you haven't caused one. Even if nobody's told you there's something wrong, they're actually watching and waiting for the point when the inconvenience you're causing is greater than the awkwardness that would emerge from asking you to stop. And if things have gotten to the point where someone feels they have to talk to you directly about an issue, it probably means you've been messing up a lot, and for a long time.
Sound scary? Check out three key ways to apologize in Japan, and then we'll discuss three common inconveniences that can be hard to spot if you're not used to "reading the air."