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Crisis Management in Japan
Rochelle Kopp
Jul 13, 2009 02:45 PM
This recent Japan Times article describes how poor communication after a disaster involving its products led to widespread condemnation for a foreign firm operating in Japan.

The discussion of the role of apology is particularly interesting.  Differing ideas about the role and use of apology in business is something I see as a frequent issue at our clients.  Not that our clients typically face major crises like the one described in this article, but in the normal course of business sometimes things go wrong, or not as well as expected.  In this situation, Japanese tend to expect apologies, wheras westerners are reluctant to apologize unless it's clear that the situation was complete their fault and there were no extenuating circumstances.  (But of course there are always extenuating circumstances!)  This creates a lot of annoyance on the part of Japanese.  In fact, items like "Americans don't take responsibility for their mistakes" "Americans don't say 'I'm sorry'", "Americans make a lot of excuses", and "Americans try to shift the blame away from themselves when something goes wrong" are one of the most frequent themes when I ask my Japanese seminar participants what bothers them most about the Americans they work with.

Although the article doesn't mention it, the discussion of apologies reminds me of the furor throughout Japanese society after a tragic accident a few years ago, in which a surfacing American submarine hit a Japanese student boat off of Hawaii, leading to many deaths.  The American submarine captain had been given legal advice not to apologize for the incident, as this would imply that he was at fault.  However in Japanese society, it was just expected as common courtesy and humanity that the captain would apologize to the families of those who had died.  When he did not do so, a furor erupted to the point that it became a diplomatic problem between the two countries. (However, although the Japanese media was covering this "lack of apology" story incessantly, it hardly showed up in the U.S. media.)  This was all happening just before I was about to go on a business trip to Japan, and I was dreading going because I expected to receive a barrage of indignant comments from my clients and friends about the captain's behavior. Fortunately, just before my departure evidently the U.S. government got some good cultural advice, the captain made personal visits to the bereaved families, and the furor calmed down. 

(Incidentally this also shows why it's important to check Japan-based news sites such as the Japan Times before traveling to Japan on business, to check for current topics being discussed in Japan especially ones involving your country, so you won't be blindsided if you are asked about them. If someone had gone to Japan during the height of society's anger over the captain's lack of apology but had been unaware of what was going on, it could have made for some awkward conversations.) 

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