Few foreigners could fathom a more humbling pose than a deep bow held for seconds on end, as camera bulbs flash to immortalize the moment of shame. But such an apologetic posture did little to settle public ire last week as Sarah Casanova, CEO for McDonald’s Holdings Japan, addressed the recent string of scandals that have mired the fast food giant.
The Japan Times quoted Casanova as saying, “I would like to sincerely apologize, once again, for all of the great anxiety and concern that the recent reports of food-related foreign objects have caused our customers.” Of course, even the most heartfelt of apologies may do little to settle the issue, considering the “foreign objects” that have been appearing in McDonald’s orders throughout January: small pieces of vinyl (found in some chicken nuggets; shards of plastic from a broken ice-cream machine (found in a cone of vanilla soft serve); and even a human tooth (found in an order of fries).
The Japan Times cited critics who claimed that Casanova’s apology was too belated. But other detractors had a more surprising gripe: the CEO seemed too sorry. For example, Toshiro Era, president of public relations consulting firm Arex Corp., said Casanova’s apology “made the company appear extremely passive,” before adding, “It’s one of those situations where she should have displayed strong leadership. People have been keeping their eyes on McDonald’s crisis management since last July and (the foreign objects found in their food) is another issue directly linked to food safety.”
But such contrition is hardly foreign in Japan. Stephen Herner, a columnist for Forbes, wrote that Asia is generally “crowded” with such bowing, shamed execs, before adding that Casanova is less concerned about letting her clientele down, and more worried about how this crisis will affect the company’s bottom line, noting that McDonald’s sales dipped by 14.6 percent in 2014 (before adding that the entire fast food industry is in decline in Japan). The Times went on to cite another example of public corporate grovelling: the Benesse Corp, a correspondence education firm that delayed in informing its clients of the rampant data theft that the company had fallen prey to.
Meanwhile, an earlier U-T San Diego piece detailed Toyota’s attempt at damage control after its cars had to be recalled because of faulty accelerators and other issues, arguing that the executive’s apology was so heartfelt because the company bears his family’s name. But the article also asked Jay Scovie, a spokesman for a Japanese manufacturer called Kyocera, for his thoughts, and he said the practice stems from a much broader source: “The Japanese culture is more conducive to the concept of apology than Western culture has become, especially in recent years. The Japanese people have an expectation that a leader is personally responsible.”
Others believe that these rampant apologies are not restricted to Japan’s corporate culture. Japan Talk, a popular travel and culture blog recently ran a list of 11 varieties of Japanese apologies, noting that the top one, sumimasen is used in mild cases like when people bump into one another. Number nine on the list is moushiwake gozaimasen deshita [literally, “there is no excuse”] described as “a polite formal apology you should only use if you’ve done something very wrong. It might be used by the president of a company that has released a defective product.”
Readers who are curious about the deeper nuances (and choreography) of Japanese apologies should study the thoughtful prose and photos found at Kotaku. Their piece thoroughly documents some of the culture’s most elaborate sorrowful bowing. The “pyramid of sorry” may be the very best example of all.