The Public Relations Strategist

A culture of apologies: Communicating crises in Japan

May 24, 2010

Japan has had its share of company scandals, product recalls, food poisonings and other incidents requiring crisis communications skills. And while Japanese companies, organizations and politicians have developed a way of handling the public disclosure of these incidents in a way that is acceptable in Japan, they are often at a loss when it comes to facing people from different cultures.

Lack of training a factor
In Japan, most companies have in-house corporate communications departments that are staffed by employees who were transferred midcareer and do not have any professional communications training. Japanese companies regularly transfer employees within the company to nurture a generalist mentality.

However, these same people are reluctant to take risks. They also frequently lack the foresight to understand the repercussions of how a crisis will affect their company in the long run. Sometimes the only one who can come in and directly tell the top management what is in the best interest of the company is an outsider — ideally a trusted PR professional who already has some experience with and knowledge of the company. This is essential in times of crisis, yet Japanese companies rarely build relationships with outside PR counsel.

Slow response time
So what is the Japanese response to a company crisis that requires an immediate response? Delay, delay and then more delay. A major reason, as stated above, is that companies rarely seek the help of outside communications specialists. Meanwhile, the advice from the in-house PR staff is often slow and muted due to the hierarchical structure of Japanese companies.

Furthermore, when the news of a potential problem first breaks, the information often flows horizontally. Top executives are not notified. Instead, members of middle management hold meetings and offer what are often watered-down suggestions, which takes time.

On these occasions, what is needed is direct contact with an organization’s top executives. Certainly, other opinions within the company need to be heard and factored into the decision-making process, but ultimately the president of the company needs to make the call about how to proceed.

With the Toyota crisis, many Americans were upset that the company first announced the recall in Europe. Why was there such a long delay before Toyota announced the recall in the United States?

One reason is that Toyota simply doesn’t have a proper global system in place to handle potential crises. Instead, the company relies heavily on the local management to resolve issues that arise. And leadership at the Toyota headquarters is unable to take decisive action because there are no in-house crisis communications professionals with the required expertise to guide them.

Dealing with the media
Corporate communications departments of large Japanese companies have also lost much of their credibility with the media. This is because in the past, when executives got into a bind, those in corporate communications would try to show consideration to the media by providing them with a great deal of background information.

However, much of this information would be vague or inaccurate, or the staff simply had no comments to give to the media, which was a source of irritation. This evasiveness is due to a lack of clarity about who is responsible for decision making during crisis situations, as well as the often slow process of revealing the latest real-time developments.

When managers in Japan are confronted with an emergency situation, there is an impulse to want to avoid matters or deal with them privately. The media, in turn, see this as evasive behavior and respond by trying to get to the bottom of the story. The more management tries to hide, the more journalists are incited to probe deeper.

To avoid this cat-and-mouse game, executives need to make the decision to voluntarily disclose information and to apologize. If properly timed, apologizing can lessen the likelihood of the president having to resign, a common outcome in Japan.

Japan is sometimes referred to as a “high context” culture, meaning that the culture at large shares the same experiences, upbringing and expectations, so many things can be left unsaid or communicated with few words. But while Japan’s high context communications techniques may be effective when addressing a Japanese audience, they don’t work when used in different cultural settings, where they can lead to misunderstandings.

What the apology means
Apologizing plays a key role when Japanese companies respond to a crisis — an act that is often misunderstood by non-Japanese. Unlike in Western societies, where a public apology is taken as an admission of guilt, apologies are considered obligatory in Japan, and it is common to see Japanese men in dark suits at packed press conferences with grave expressions, their heads bowed deeply, apologizing to the Japanese public at large. But what exactly are they apologizing for? Often the apology is for creating a disturbance and is not meant to imply guilt or innocence. While this might be understood in Japan, apologizing in this manner clearly does not translate well to an overseas audience.

It brings to mind an incident in 1990, when a Japanese-owned company, Bridgestone/Firestone, was in the spotlight in the United States. Then-CEO Masatoshi Ono was called before a congressional hearing to answer questions about Firestone tires on Ford Explorers. The tread separated from these tires, resulting in a number of fatalities. Ono began by apologizing, and when I heard it, I thought, “That is not something that is done in a public hearing in the United States.” 

Toyota President and CEO Akio Toyoda appeared to have learned that lesson in his dealings with the U.S. press. And although he did express his regret and state that he was sorry, it was not the main focus of the congressional hearing about the recent recall. But when Toyoda went to China this past March, his regret was the main point he stressed in most of his interactions with the Chinese press, to the extent that they started calling him “Mr. Apology.” There are cultural similarities between Japan and China with respect to apologizing, and that translated well there.

When your audience is Japanese
I always advise our American clients to choose their words carefully when dealing with the Japanese press. Japanese people are accustomed to receiving information in an indirect way. They often pay more attention to the mode of expression than the words spoken. Modesty works, and of course the delivery needs to be sincere. Taking a hard, unrelenting line when the timing is wrong — for example, at the early stage of a potential crisis, even if it may be justified — is almost certain to fail. In addition, Japanese audiences do not take kindly to excuses, even when they may be warranted. Remember that only a few hundred years ago, Japanese samurai were expected to commit hara-kiri when they were involved in some wrongdoing. To make an excuse is considered unbecoming for the head of a major company, whether Japanese or foreign.

While these character traits may be a part of Japanese society, they are of limited value outside of these islands. That said, apologizing is not a bad thing and can help to create goodwill in our global society. 

However, when the Japanese find themselves in a predicament outside of their own country, they need to adopt the relationship-management skills necessary to gain the understanding of people from a variety of cultures. And that is something that still needs to be learned.

Takashi Inoue, Ph.D.
Takashi Inoue, Ph.D., is president & CEO of Inoue Public Relations, a leading Japanese PR company. He is an expert in crisis communications, issues management, strategic communications and government relations. In April 2004, he became a visiting professor at Waseda University, where he was later awarded Japan’s first Ph.D. in public relations.


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