Art of the Japanese company apology: It’s all in the bow


Imagine you’re the head of a U.S. fast-food chain in Japan that has been scandalized by a tooth-in-french-fries disaster. How do you repair the damage? Bow deeply — and be convincing.

So it was for Sarah Casanova, the Canadian president of McDonald’s Japan, whose less-than-textbook corporate mea culpa this month was an attempt at the tightly choreographed script routinely used by crisis-hit organizations.

With cameras rolling and reporters at the ready, apology news conferences are a must-do piece of theater for Japanese firms that wander from the straight-and-narrow in a country that has a dozen expressions for saying sorry.

Act 1: Wear dark colors, look grim and apologize profusely. Add a liberal sprinkling of words like “unfortunate” and “deeply regrettable.”

Act 2: Take a deep bow — better keep limber since you have got to make like a right angle or you will look like an amateur.

Act 3: Forget about buying a Porsche this year. You’ve got to cut your pay temporarily or forgo a bonus. Senior managers too.

Acts 4 and 5: Optional add-ons (depending on circumstances) — quit outright, or more likely step aside and put someone else in as CEO. Promise sweeping changes to avoid further scandals.

“This is part of a broader cultural phenomenon where the leader takes a hit for the team, then hopefully . . . society at large moves on,” says Jun Okumura, an independent analyst and visiting researcher at Meiji Institute for Global Affairs.

But what’s most important?

“I don’t know. All of it? After all, it’s a script. I don’t think Shakespeare said, ‘So-and-so got killed in a fight? Okay, we’ll just drop all the scenes with Mercutio,'” he adds.

“The bow should be as close to 90 degrees as anatomically possible.”

A group of pharmaceutical bosses once took bowing to a legendary level when they dropped to their knees and touched their noses to the floor after supplying HIV-tainted blood products.

Television and social media have made it all the more important to convince a public sensitive to visual cues, says Mitsuru Fukuda, a professor of crisis management and risk communications at Nihon University in Tokyo.

“A big difference is that in the West, facts matter,” he says.

“Japanese journalists . . . focus on top leaders’ apologies.”

Business communication specialist Yasuyuki Mogi adds: “Unless words of apology are at the forefront, many Japanese feel (it) lacks sincerity.”

The boss of disgraced auto parts maker Takata chopped his own pay in half for several months after an exploding air bag crisis was linked to at least five deaths, while the top brass at Sony went without bonuses to atone for awful financial results.

“Well, you need something other than ‘Off with their heads,’ don’t you?” says Okumura.

“It’s a financial hit, but as long as they are restored before retirement, the hit to their severance pay and pensions will be small.”

But it will certainly sting in the short run. Japanese CEOs tend to be rank-and-file company veterans who have worked their way up the ladder and are paid much less than their overseas counterparts with their boatload of stock options — and egos to match.

“U.S. CEOs are typically hired guns . . . who market their expertise to the highest bidders — that is not an environment conducive to taking a hit for the company,” Okumura says.

Casanova’s performance got mixed reviews from apology watchers. Some say her foreigner status doomed her chances of being convincing, but others thought her gender could mean reporters would have been easier on her.

But even a picture-perfect effort on Casanova’s part might not have helped much to make up for mounting losses and allay public concerns after a string of food scares, including the human tooth found in a box of french fries, says Jeff Kingston, a professor of Asian studies at Temple University’s Tokyo campus.

“When you are in the business of selling food and your food is found wanting and considered unhealthy, there is no bow low enough to right what is wrong.”

  • Harry Hirsch

    Is quitting the ultimate gesture? What about Seppuku (切腹)?

    Nothing like slicing yourself to death to show how sorry you are.

    • J.P. Bunny

      But you wouldn’t be able to collect your pension and bonus afterwards.

  • tsigili

    I don’t think McDonald’s only problem, is a tooth in the french fries.