It was 01:00 in Tokyo and we were trying to get into an apartment with a pair of stolen keys. We’d got lost trying to find our Airbnb, and were now at an address that looked 90% right. Turns out in the middle of the night that’s close enough. There were keys in the letterbox, where our host said they’d be, so when the security code didn’t work I just worked my surprisingly flexible hands through the slot to grab them, like a modern-day Artful Dodger.
At this point, you’d think we might have stopped to take stock, but we were fuelled by the kind of determination that comes from a 12-hour flight followed by the public-transport pilgrimage from Narita to Shinjuku. But midway through jiggling the keys in the lock, the door whipped open to reveal a nightdress-clad lady and her daughter looking out at us in bemusement. Definitely not our Airbnb then.
Amazingly though, instead of screaming at us, calling the police or both, for the next 20 minutes they tried to help us find the right address. All without us speaking a word of Japanese, or them speaking a word of English. And when we turned up nothing, they formally apologised to us. The gaikokujin, or foreigners, who’d just tried to break into their home.
A Japanese family apologised to writer Emma Cooke even though she had been the one to make a mistake (Credit: Credit: Iain Masterton/Alamy)
Writer Emma Cooke was surprised when a Japanese family apologised to her after she had inadvertently tried to break into their apartment (Credit: Iain Masterton/Alamy)
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The trope of Japanese apologies is a common one, frequently taken as mere self-effacement at best or, at worst, as unnecessary self-flagellation. And indeed, as a gaijin in Japan, apologising can seem a way of life here. There are dedicated sorry gestures: for example, a hand held up against your forehead is both an apology and a way for little old ladies to plough through crowds, like tiny battleships in a sea of people.
Only 10% of ‘sumimasen’ is an apology. Ninety percent is used to show respect, politeness, honesty
There are also myriad ways to apologise. At least 20, according to this BBC explainer. The lady in our not-quite-apartment used the more formal ‘gomen-nasai’, but the most common is ‘sumimasen’, passed onto me as the most useful word we could learn for the trip. Roughly translated as an apologetic ‘excuse me’, it rings out of doorways, taxis, shops and restaurants, leaving ‘arigatou’ (thank you) by the wayside. This often translates into an assumption that the Japanese apologise to the exclusion of all else.
According to Laurie Inokuma, who holds a degree from Cornell in Japanese language and worked for Japan Airlines for 15 years, however, this isn’t true. ‘Sumimasen’, for instance, isn’t necessarily replacing ‘arigatou’ – it’s encompassing it.
“Only 10% of ‘sumimasen’ is an apology. Ninety percent is used to show respect, politeness, honesty,” she said. “It’s an everyday word. When someone does something for you, getting out of your way in the grocery store, or holding a door, ‘ah, sumimasen’ is the common response.”
The Japanese have at least 20 ways to apologise (Credit: Credit: Emma Cooke)
The Japanese have at least 20 ways to apologise, but the most common is ‘sumimasen’, which roughly translates to ‘excuse me’ (Credit: Emma Cooke)
Just as easily a ‘thank you’ as a ‘sorry’, ‘sumimasen’ is regularly used to acknowledge the trouble someone has gone to for you. “There's a humility in it; depending on the situation it’s either apologetic or grateful,” Inokuma said.
Erin Niimi Longhurst, the British-Japanese author of Japonisme, which looks at how Japanese traditions can help create a more thoughtful life, agrees. “There’s a culture of apology but also a culture of thankfulness. One of my favourite anecdotes is when my British aunt met a Japanese lady at a conference, then took her along to a family dinner. This woman came in and had beautifully wrapped little gifts that she handed out to us, all from Japan. There were even presents for my much younger brother and sister. She had no idea she was going to be last-minute invited to this dinner, but had brought gifts with her and things to wrap them in, just in case. It was incredible.”
This year’s World Cup is an even grander example of this level of courtesy: when Japan lost its final match, the team made headlines when they stayed behind to clean the entire changing room. They even left a thank-you note.
‘Sumimasen’ is an everyday word used to show respect for others (Credit: Credit: Malcolm Fairman/Alamy)
‘Sumimasen’ is an everyday word used to show respect for others (Credit: Malcolm Fairman/Alamy)
So, if apologies are just one cog in the larger moving wheel of Japanese politeness, where does the overarching cultural concept come from?
“There is a need for politeness in Japan to get along with living on top of your neighbours – it’s a respect for others,” Inokuma said. In Tokyo, watching great swaths of humanity queuing politely for miles on end to get into Shinjuku Gyoen park or shuffling forwards towards Nakameguro’s riverside during cherry blossom season, this makes sense.
There is a need for politeness in Japan to get along with living on top of your neighbours
Japan has some of the most densely packed cities in the world, with a whopping 93.93% urban population. Tokyo, for instance, has around 6,150 people per sq km, in comparison to London’s 5,729 (bear in mind, that includes Tokyo’s expansive outer suburbs – the bulk of residents are concentrated in the city centre of Greater Tokyo, the world’s most populous metropolitan area, and a further 2.4 million commute in every day). The average living space per person in the city is an elbow-bumping 22 sq m across the country, going down to 19 sq m in Tokyo. We experienced this first hand, staying in apartments throughout our trip that were unanimously spotless, homely – and unbelievably tiny. When there’s a premium on space, it suddenly seems natural to become as considerate of it as possible.
“There is this respect for other people’s space,” Longhurst affirmed. “When you go into a Japanese home you always take your shoes off – a separation of outside and inside. There’s also an attitude of ‘meiwaku’, meaning ‘sorry to bother you’ or ‘sorry to come into your space’.”