Within a culture packed with polite manners, Japanese people are known to be very apologetic — almost to a fault. It’s virtually commonplace to say “sorry” even in situations where it’s not really necessary.
Such unnecessary expressions of repentance have been on full display in recent years, with notable cases of Japanese parents publicly apologizing for their adult children’s alleged involvement in crime.
Case in point: Atsuko Takahata, a local actress, gave a heartfelt apology in August last year for her son who was implicated in a sexual assault case. In her public statement, she claimed partial responsibility for any wrong doing her 22-year-old may have committed. Her son would later be released without charge.
This phenomenon is not exclusive to famous celebrities. Similar instances in the past have parents expressing regret over their children’s criminal actions.
In 2008, parents of a 25-year-old man who killed seven people in a crowded commercial street gave a public apology to the press.
“Our son has committed a grave crime. We sincerely apologise to those who were killed and injured,” they were quoted as saying.
Several other admissions of partial guilt, which is fairly unique to the Japanese culture, have similarly been made public in recent years.
According to the BBC, however, there is more to the practice than simply a case of adults taking responsibility for their child’s actions.
Back in the samurai era of 15th and 16th century Japan, a traditional practice called the Enza rule had a criminal’s family members equally liable for punishment for the crime committed.
Between the 17th and 19th centuries, a variation of such collective responsibility was kept in practice. In the Edo era, neighboring households of five were grouped into one unit, making each responsible for the other’s crimes. Any member who commits a crime automatically implicates the entire unit.
According to Kyushu Institute of Technology professor and sociologist Naoki Sato, while the law would later be abolished in 1868 at the end of the period, a part of its legacy has remained. Generations of Japanese have kept the mentality of being responsible for the “seken”, or “the public”.
The professor, who is also an expert on seken studies, further explains that in Japanese society, people are keen to observe unspoken rules in order to function harmoniously in the community. This includes feeling responsible for the seken regardless if they had not done anything wrong on their part.
This culture thus leads to extreme pressure from a condemning public to have individuals atone for a relative’s crime.
Sato also highlights some major differences between parent-child relationships in Japanese and Western cultures.
Western parents, he points out, view their offsprings as individuals, while Japanese parents look at their children like possessions, leading them to “own” even their actions.
While public opinion among netizens is currently split on the idea of apologizing for other people’s actions since the practice is so deeply rooted in society, it is expected to continue for a long time.