Insights into the Art of Apology

NPR broadcast a very interesting story this week on the art of apology, exploring what makes or breaks an effective apology: “A Case Study in How to Apologize for a War  Crime.” In this case, there were two attempts to apologize–the first further angered the victims, the second was even better than expected.

The backdrop was World War II, when American soldiers were imprisoned in Japan and suffered under conditions which violated the Geneva Convention. In 2009, the Japanese ambassador attempted to apologize to a room full of former POWs, but the wording was so weak that it prompted half the soldiers in the audience to turn their backs on the speakers. A good apology is specific, but this one was vague, e.g., apologizing “to all those who lost their lives in the war.” It did not say for what the speaker was apologizing.

One of the soldiers, James Murphy, still traumatized from his horrific abuse laboring in the copper mines of Mitsubishi, said he wanted to hear something along the lines of, “Sorry and that you won’t do it again.”

In this case, the “mediator” (the story refers to her as “the apology broker”) was a woman, Kinue Tokudome, who had grown up in Japan but lived in the U.S. She discerned the difference between the Japanese idea of apology — “soaked in shame” — and the POWs’ desire for an acknowledgement of the wrongs done to them. She was able to arrange for Mitsubishi executives to apologize to POWs imprisoned there. Mitsubishi had previously refused to apologize, contending that to admit the history of forced labor would be to saddle Japan with a centuries-long “burden of the soul.” But the year before last, Mitsubishi executives met with James Murphy and a few other POWs still alive, and Mitsubishi senior executive Hikari Kimura said, “When I understand the sad truth of the matter, I feel a pained sense of ethical responsibility as a fellow human being.” Then all the executives bowed. Mr. Murphy said it “was almost embarrassing” how much feeling they put into it.

In this case, the offender made an incorrect assumption about what an “apology” would say, or what the victim wanted to hear. The bi-cultural woman who served as “the apology broker” was able to identify the crossed signals and facilitate an effective apology. Sometimes, just finding out what the victim needs to hear can prompt a good apology.

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