An apology hidden under the floor matTraditional Japanese houses have rooms with tatami flooring. Made with woven rice straw mats covered with soft rush straw, tatami floors are ideal material for ventilation and moisture control in hot, humid weather. You can also easily hide something under there. And so the Japanese saying goes: “If you don’t want to acknowledge your mistake, you better tuck it under the tatami mat.”
This tendency becomes especially evident when the reputation of a group is at stake.
However, when they decide that they can’t hide it under the floor anymore, they become emboldened. When there is nowhere else to retreat, the Japanese come out to the public and bow their heads deeply. It becomes even more moving when tears are shed.
Recently, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) apologized to the relatives of a woman who killed herself after the Fukushima nuclear disaster. There was an advance notice for the apology, and Japanese media covered it in detail. The director of the nuclear disaster compensation unit knelt down and bowed. “We apologize sincerely from the heart. We are very sorry,” he said, his voice trembling. The next day, I visited the TEPCO headquarters.
Hamako Watanabe, 58, killed herself by setting herself on fire in July 2011. She had suffered from depression while spending four months in the shelter after the nuclear accident in Fukushima.
Over accountability for her tragic fate, a lawsuit was raised, which lasted two years. TEPCO strongly denied the correlation between the suicide and the nuclear accident, arguing that the cause of suicide was not clear and she had been psychologically frail. However, the Fukushima district court ruled in favor of the victim’s family and ordered TEPCO to compensate 49 million yen ($445,973) to the family.
TEPCO was expected to appeal initially but changed its position two weeks later. It decided to end the suit and made a sudden public apology. It was an exit strategy to avoid further criticism, handle other pending issues and prevent possible lawsuits in the future.
Public apologies from the Japanese are sometimes refreshing, but it is different from a Korean reality, where no one is willing to be accountable for disasters. However, half-hearted public apologies after failed attempts to hide faults under the tatami mat are usually unpleasant and awkward.
Recently, I read on a book about Japanese culture that stated: “An apology is not acknowledging one’s fault. It is merely a measure to silence the criticism.”
I think that precisely describes how the Japanese government works. In the 1993 Kono Statement, it once apologized to Korea’s “comfort women,” who were forcibly recruited into Japanese military brothels during World War II to work as sex slaves. Today, Japan denies such wartime atrocities, and continues to make false claims.
The author is a Tokyo correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo. JoongAng Ilbo, Sept. 30, Page 34
BY LEE JEONG-HEON