Japanese apology

An American cargo ship was carrying a Japanese companies’ products from Japan to the USA. The ship was caught in a typhoon and sank. The Japanese company demanded a formal apology from the shipping firm, but they refused. They said a typhoon was an ‘Act of God’ and it was not their fault. The Japanese company was furious. The shipping company’s response was not nearly good enough, as they had refused to engage in Hansei.

So, what is Hansei actually?

To answer this, I asked the founder of Japan Intercultural Consulting, Rochelle Kopp, a few questions about

Hansei. Take it away, Rochelle!

This is one of those Japanese terms that there’s not an exact equivalent in English. Probably the closest would be ‘to reflect’ or ‘to regret’. Hansei is always used when there is something that didn’t go well and you’re looking back on it and thinking, ‘How could I have done better? What should I have done differently?’ And related, ‘What could I do in the future?’

Now, let me share a story of someone at a Japanese company who did not Hansei, and it led to a very bad interaction with his Japanese manager. So, this is the head of sales for the American division of a Japanese company and he was called into his boss, the president’s office, his boss is Japanese, and he was given a scolding for the poor sales numbers that had just been reported for the American operation and the sales manager proceeded to talk about all the reasons that these poor sales figures had happened that were outside of his control: That he had asked for more budget for advertising but that he hadn’t received it, he had requested the parent company to be providing a different mixture of products that was better suited to the American market, and when he heard this, the Japanese president was absolutely livid and ended up screaming at him, because he was so unhappy with that attitude. And if you look at it from a Japanese cultural perspective, the Japanese president would have been expecting something different based on the idea of Hansei.

In Japan, when something doesn’t go well, like poor sales, the expectation is that the first thing you would do is acknowledge it, you would apologize, and you would take responsibility for it and say something like ‘I feel really badly that this happened, I wish we had done better. I don’t feel good about this result and I’m taking responsibility for it.’

 Then the second thing that would be expected as part of Hansei is to reflect or talk about why this happened. And this assumes that you have probably done some research or some thinking about it. And so, if the president had said, ‘Well, you know, I think that there’s three main reasons why this happened…’ And in these reasons, it shouldn’t be focusing on the things that were outside of your control, but rather the things that you could have done differently.

And then the third part of Hansei is to talk about ‘What are we going to do differently in the future?’ And there’s actually a Japanese term for this too: ‘Saihatsu Boshi’, prevention of a re-occurrence. And so, this is the how Hansei always finishes up, with a description of ‘What are you going to do different? Are you going to put some new procedures into place? Are you going to do some training? Or are you going to try to do things a different way? What is it that you’re going to do to make sure it doesn’t happen again?’

Now, if you look at it from a cultural perspective from outside of Japan, I’ll talk about Americans, for example, we tend to not apologize for things that aren’t clearly 100% our fault. And so, like the American sales manager, we tend to talk about all the reasons that were outside of our control, all the extenuating circumstances behind the problem before we talk about what we could have done. So, in the United States, if you’re late for work, people would be like, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, I’m late! There was this huge traffic jam on the I-95!’ Rather in Japan, people would talk about, ‘Oh, I’m really sorry that I’m late. Next time, I’ll try and leave earlier.’

When I do seminars for Japanese who are working with people from other countries, the lack of Hansei is something that comes up literally every single time.

Sometimes they’ll just say, ‘We don’t like it that non-Japanese don’t Hansei.’ Or they’ll, say things like, ‘They make too many excuses.’ Or ‘They try to shift blame or responsibility to other people.’ Or ‘They don’t apologize for things.’ And those are all really talking about the lack of Hansei. And in fact, my bestselling book in Japanese is ‘How to Deal with Americans Who Don’t Hansei’ and I find when Japanese look at it, they immediately have this laugh of recognition like, ‘Oh, how did you know that that was the thing that really drove us crazy?’

So, when you’re working with Japanese it’s very important if something goes wrong to follow the three steps of Hansei: Apologise. Don’t try and talk about all the reason why wasn’t your fault, just admit that it was your fault. Talk about what happened honestly and why you think it happened, your analysis. And then your plans for making sure the same thing doesn’t happen again. Now, if you take that approach, you’re likely to have a much more positive experience with your Japanese colleagues.

For more on Hansei and other Japanese workplace processes, try our e-learning module Japanese Workstyle, part of our Working Effectively with Japanese course, which is also available as an in-house training session.

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