SAYING ‘I’M SORRY’ — AND MEANING IT

The Japanese apologized to me once. Not the whole country. But one man, on behalf of the whole country.

This was a few years ago, at the Winter Olympics in Nagano. I was due to catch an early bus, a 4 a.m. departure, for the long ride back to Tokyo. I arrived at the bus depot, but the bus wasn’t there.

The man at the depot made a fast phone call to the head of the Olympic transportation committee. Never mind that it was 4 a.m. and he was calling the guy at home. A mistake had been made. The top person had to accept responsibility.

An hour later, I was being tucked into a taxi by that very man, who looked as if he had just fallen out of bed. He apologized profusely. Of course, he said, he would pay for the taxi, which would cost nearly $1,000 for the 6-hour ride.

“Please do not hate my country,” he said, bowing, “for the mistake I have made.”

There was such genuine contrition behind that plea, as if he were truly apologizing on behalf of every Japanese man and woman, that I could only shake his hand and say: “Please. Stop. I do not blame anyone.”

He bowed again.

Wanted: An apology, face-to-face

I thought about that incident last week when hearing of the Japanese reaction to apologies offered by U.S. naval officers in the wake of the terrible collision between the USS Greeneville and a Japanese fishing vessel 3 weeks ago.

The Greeneville, on a routine training mission, ripped into the bottom of the fishing boat, sinking it within minutes. Nine people, many of them students, are still missing and presumed dead.

At first, the Navy issued a statement of regret. The Japanese were not satisfied. Other U.S. officials offered sympathies. Still not enough. The Japanese, particularly the families of the missing, wanted an in-person apology, and they wanted it from the captain, the man at the top.

Last week in Honolulu, that captain, Scott D. Waddle, met with a Japanese vice minister. He said a few tearful words, used the word “apology” and offered letters for each of the victim’s families.

This was better, the Japanese indicated, but still not enough. In person was what they desired. The captain should say I’m sorry face-to-face to every family.

Not everyone here agrees. Some pundits suggest enough is enough. An accident is an accident. The military apologized, accepted responsibility, wrote letters. That’s the end of it.

Besides, they note, Japan has been horribly slow to apologize for — or in some cases, even fully acknowledge — crimes committed during World War II. Who are those people to talk?

Protecting yourself from a lawsuit

Now let’s put aside political leaders, who never seem to follow rules that govern normal people. What we have here is a common human dilemma: How does the guilty party say it is sorry? How does the victim know it is sincere?

Japan, remember, is the country that invented seppuku, or hara-kiri, in which the guilty party confesses, apologizes, then disembowels himself in front of the victim.

That’s a little gory for our tastes.

But there is something behind the act that we have lost in America. The sense of shame. In Japan, traditionally, the thought of bringing shame on the family was so overwhelming, suicide was considered a proper response.

In the United States these days, a quick apology, or a press release expressing “deep regret” is considered enough. What’s often more important — and might be the case with Capt. Waddle — is protecting yourself from anything that might be used against you in court.

What that shows is more concern for the guilty than the innocent. I think back to that bus incident in Nagano. Had it happened here, someone would have shrugged, said “sorry” and gone back to his coffee. Instead, I got an apology and a solution, in person, on behalf of the whole country.

There’s a song that goes, “I’m sorry seems to be the hardest words.” But it’s not the words that are difficult. It’s meaning them. And not stopping until the injured party believes you do.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760) and simulcast on MSNBC 3-5 p.m.

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