Several people have asked me to comment on an article in the NYT about the reaction of to the Japanese people to the three Japanese taken hostage in Iraq. The article describes how everyone including the politicians in Japan are angry at the hostages for causing trouble to the Japanese government and being irresponsible.
There are many conflicting reports about whether they were reckless or not and what their motives were so I won't comment on that. I also don't feel strongly personally on this issue so I'm not going to make a judgmental point either. What I would like to describe is a bit more background on how Japanese think about responsibility and apologies.
I think one of the things that made many Japanese I know upset were the parents of the hostages making public statements about how the government should help get the hostages back without apologizing first about causing trouble for the government. Even if they didn't believe it, it would be proper Japanese etiquette to say this first. It's quite cliche, but it's true that if you get into an automobile accident in Japan, even if you think it's probably the other person's fault, you apologize first. Japanese are warned not to do this in the US because apologizes imply responsibility. In many cases, apologies in Japan are a formality and skipping them is rather rude. I think many people thought these parents were "rude" on a national scale. Another example of a throw-away apology is that when you ask for a waiter in a restaurant, you say, "I'm sorry... or excuse me." We often apologize profusely when in doubt or are requesting any kind of favor.
An important psychological element is that even though we are individuals, we often represent the group. I have something like 16 or so generations before me on my gravestone and I often feel like a mere blip in the history of my family. Taking risk or tainting my family name is not something that I can freely do without feeling the guilt and responsibility to my ancestors.
It's also interesting to note that most Japanese children's cartoons have story lines where they are a team. Often one of the members get in trouble or drop out of the group and the whole show is about how the group tries to help the drop out get back in tune with the group. It's usually the group saving the single "problem" member. On the other hand, many American cartoons are super-heros who are independent and save the world through taking risk and being different. I know I'm generalizing here, but people who watch a lot of Japanese TV will understand what I'm saying I think.
I once talked to one of the directors of the Sumo Wrestling association. She said she always had a great deal of difficulty explaining one of the core principles of Sumo to foreigners. Sumo wrestlers are not supposed to show anguish when they lose or happiness when they win. They are to be emotionless and stoic. "Like a rooster carved out of wood," she said. This is a very central theme to many of Japanese aesthetics. This Japanese stoicism is central to much of the Japanese lack of sympathy to heroics, I think.
Although I understand what the NYT article is saying and I don't necessarily agree with the way the hostages are being treated and picked on right now, I think that lack of initial apologies and the feeling of Japanese to heroics in Japan is behind the reaction. Having said that, I think this attitude is what is hampering Japan's entrepreneurism as well as Japan's ability to participate as a leader in global affairs. It's a fairly deeply rooted cultural theme that won't change very easily though.
As usual, I'm happy to hear dissenting opinions.