Sorry is the hardest word (or the easiest)

When the president of the bankrupt Tokyo stockbroker Yamaichi broke down in tears of shame on television, you might have thought it very Japanese. Well the shame was, but not the tears. In the West, on the other hand, public tears are commonplace but shame has given way to shamelessness.

The stocky little Japanese stood with a microphone under his chin and sobbed. He bowed deeply and with each bow he howled. It was not what we had come to expect.

Mr Shohei Nozawa took more than Western television viewers by surprise with his extravagant outpouring of sorrow when he stood up to apologise publicly for the crash of one of Japan's oldest stockbrokers. He took the Japanese by surprise, too.

We, of course, did not quite know what to expect. A ritual disembowelling perhaps? Only a few years ago a story circulated in London financial circles, no doubt apocryphally, about a Japanese chap who ran a sushi-at-your-desk delivery service who had given one of his clients food poisoning had committed hara-kiri.

But the ritual suicide is a bit of a Western cliche. There are, in fact, fewer suicides in Japan than in Europe. But it is true that an act which in the West is seen essentially as a selfish act can be selfless in Japan. Not long ago, a series of blunders and lies at a nuclear storage facility disgraced the company who ran it. One of the employees jumped off the building. His death was seen as honourable. In Japan honour is bound up with shame. In other cultures the response would have been very different.

To Westerners, the odd thing about Mr Nozawa was that he was comparatively clean. He had only recently taken over the top job after the previous bosses were ousted for a scandal in which they paid racketeers to stop them embarrassing the board at AGMs. Had he been a British manager, learning from the example of our politicians, no doubt he would have said, "Sorry, folks, but it's not my fault. It was the last lot. I'm just here to pick up the pieces. Don't blame me."

But the Japanese would have been outraged by that; it would have smacked of arrogance. It would have been unthinkable for him not to have apologised. Japan is still a society where an individual's identity derives not from personal achievement so much as from the groups he or she belongs to - family, school, job, clubs, community in concentric circles out to the nation. This is a world where the company outing or golf on Saturday is not an optional treat; it is compulsory. Personal responsibility is also collective responsibility. If your company goes down you are tainted too.

Shame is what regulates all this. No one wants their inadequacies exposed before their peers. It is a world whose codes are derived from the detachment of Buddhism and the Shinto tendency to think in terms of purity and impurity rather than good and evil. We in the West draw more on a Judeo-Christian inheritance of guilt rooted in the notion that we must respond to the commands of a personal God. Guilt is therefore internalised; you can be guilty alone but you need a community for shame.

It's an interesting conflict. Guilt produces self-blame, remorse, anxiety - ideally enough to prompt expiatory action. Without guilt there could be no sense of responsibility in personal relationships, though guilt can become neurotic (ask the Catholics and Jews) and may persist long after remedial measures have been taken. And it may be displaced so that feelings are apparently aroused by something other than the real cause.

But shame is a much more potent social force. And in recent years it seems that it is exerting greater power in the West too. Neil Hamilton and Jonathan Aitken were shamed out of office rather than being driven from it by guilt. But because shame depends upon a community, it, too, has a lessening effect as society is atomised by the philosophies of the market and an ever-greater individualism. As society fragments, shame is confined to smaller peer groups - with doctors, clergymen and other professionals unrepentant except in the face of the disapproval of colleagues who might disbar them. Then there are those like Winnie Mandela who seem not to know the meaning of shame.

Indeed there were those yesterday accusing Earl Spencer of shamelessness, contrasting his moral outrage at the funeral of the Princess of Wales, with the allegations of adultery - 12 women in the first five months of his marriage - he is now facing in the divorce courts. Spencer, of course, is contesting the allegation rather than seeking refuge in mere apology which is the modern response to shame.

Apologies today are everywhere. Britain has apologised for the Irish Potato Famine. The US government is considering saying sorry for slavery. Even the Japanese government thought about making an apology for the Second World War - before deciding it might have to pay compensation if it did.

But the latest phenomenon is the exorbitant apology. Consider the following from Mike Tyson two days after he bit off the end of Evander Holyfield's ear: "I apologise to the world, to my family, to the Nevada State Athletic Commission that has always treated me fairly. I apologise to the MGM, to Showtime, to Don King my promoter, to my team and to this wonderful city of Las Vegas that has hosted so many boxing events."

In the modern world apology has become a devalued concept. Confession has now replaced contrition rather than merely following it. What was once a vice restricted to consenting Catholics acting in private, is now public - and preferably televised. This misses an essential point.

While imprisoned in a concentration camp, Simon Wiesenthal was once confronted by a dying member of the SS seeking a Jew to confess to. "Give me absolution," the man said. But Wiesenthal could not. For the same reason Archbishop Desmond Tutu was once upbraided by fellow blacks after he accepted the apology of the Dutch Reform Church when it expressed remorse for apartheid. Only the sufferer can forgive.

The tendency in the contemporary world, however, is to demand instant forgiveness of whoever is tuned in. Relief, like everything else in modern life, must be instantaneous and complete as a Hollywood happy ending. The weeping Japanese company president in the Tokyo Stock Exchange this week seemed a world away from this. His howls seemed to come from the very pit of his being, and we were not sure what to think.

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