Japanese Words to Improve Our Relations—and Ourselves

Society Lifestyle

In walking around Tokyo I often see Japanese talking to someone on their cellphone and bowing as they say sumimasen (I’m sorry). They are making all that effort to apologize despite the fact that the person on the other end of the line can’t even see them.

Japanese are known around the world for their frequent apologies. This contrasts with Middle Eastern or Western countries, where people tend to be quite reluctant to apologize, since it amounts to recognition of their own responsibility for something. In those cultures, apologizing weakens one’s own position and could even put a person at a disadvantage if a court case ensued.

Five Key Concepts

After living for many years in Japan, I have come to see that apologizing to someone is an act that requires both courage and an honest assessment of yourself. In other words, the person who is apologizing has to be the stronger of the two, in a sense. Issuing an apology certainly does not mean that a person is humiliating himself or herself, or seeking to flatter the other person.

Confucius once wrote that, “If you make a mistake and do not correct it, that is the mistake.”

It really facilitates human relations when people are willing to frankly admit a fault that harms or inconveniences someone else—and to express gratitude willingly by saying arigatō.

In Buddhist thought, there are five concepts related to showing gratitude, expressed in the following five terms: hai (yes), sumimasen (I’m sorry), okagesama (thanks to you), watashi ga shimasu (I’ll do it), and arigatō (thanks). These terms, respectively, express the senses of sincerity, contrition, humility, dedication, and gratitude.

Condensed within these five concepts are the things that are important to someone as a human being.

Such moral concepts should be held in common throughout the world, regardless of religious beliefs, and handed down from parent to child. But the degree to which they are put into practice differs significantly from country to country and between individuals.

My hope is that my own child will grow up to hold those five ideas close to heart. But for that to happen, it is important for me as the parent to also never forget them.

There are many things that Japan has taught me—and this is one of the most precious lessons.

(Originally written in Japanese on November 6, 2013.)

morality language gratitude apology human relations words