Japanese people like to apologize; or maybe “like” isn’t the right word. As in English, many Japanese terms that have the meaning of an apology are used for the sake of perfunctory politeness, so a sincere apology requires effort, and there’s no more powerful apology than dogeza, the act of prostrating oneself in front of another person to ask forgiveness. But even this gesture has been diminished through overuse lately, its emotional value cheapened by the realization that such apologies don’t always solve anything.

Having evolved from medieval times, when common folk were compelled to bow low as their lord passed in front of them, dogeza implies fealty to a superior. It is also used to ask for something other than forgiveness, like money. As one Twitter user recently remarked in response to the spate of dogeza-related stories in the media, if banks actually lent you money after you got down on your knees and begged, everyone would be doing it.

The Tweet was a reference to a scene in the popular TBS series “Hanzawa Naoki,” which finished several weeks ago with very high ratings. In that scene a small Osaka manufacturer performs dogeza in front of a banker named Owada while asking for a loan. Later, the man’s son and the story’s titular character, played by Masato Sakai, does dogeza in front of Owada, who is now his superior in the bank where he works. And then in the penultimate scene in the series, which earned a whopping 46 percent audience share and has attracted more than a million YouTube hits, Hanzawa forces Owada to perform dogeza at a board meeting to apologize for an inappropriate loan he made, though everybody knows it’s all about revenge.

The scene was ridiculous, which just enhanced its appeal to viewers. A recent installment of NHK’s nightly documentary series, “Close-up Gendai,” explored the dogeza boom, and even the director of “Hanzawa Naoki” admitted discomfort with the reaction. “It’s scary,” he said. “I don’t know why it’s suddenly become so popular.” Another pundit likened the response to the mob mentality that, in a less enlightened age, made public executions a highly anticipated form of entertainment.

And yet when NHK conducted a random survey, most respondents said they thought dogeza “had no meaning,” owing probably to the fact that so many companies these days apologize for business misdemeanors in front of the press. There are even firms that counsel companies on how to effectively carry out an apology news conference, including tips on what sort of bow is appropriate for the circumstances.

People love to see other people being humiliated. One man who spends his time studying Japanese apologies told NHK that society always needs a focus for its anger, and maybe folks are angrier than usual now. It’s a spiral phenomenon: people resent wrongdoers, wrongdoers apologize in a cosmetic manner, thus causing more cynicism and anger and leading to more reasons to apologize.

A news item last week brought home how this cyclical deterioration of public trust, combined with the desire to see others debase themselves, can become a social problem. Early in September, a 43-year-old Hokkaido woman went to an outlet of the discount chain Shimamura to return a towel she had bought there. She claimed that she had discovered a hole in the towel when she brought it home. She received a refund but wanted more. She wanted to be recompensated for the taxi fare to the store, and she wanted two employees to perform dogeza. They refused the former request but agreed to the latter, and the woman photographed the act. Then she posted the photo on Twitter along with the employees’ names.

Other Twitter users were outraged. They sought out and then publicized not only the offending woman’s name, but also the names of her family members and even her license-plate number. The police, alarmed by the reaction, arrested the woman on charges of kyoyozai (criminal coercion). This law is usually used in cases of extortion, but there was no money demanded in this instance other than the taxi fare, so it’s not clear what kind of case prosecutors have. One legal expert explained on the TBS morning show “Asa Zuba!” that police may have arrested her for her own good, since the Twitter backlash was turning ugly. He doubted the case would go to trial.

Criminal Code 223 is just vague enough to be useful in these sorts of incidents, since it penalizes a person who forces others to do something against their will and which they are not required to do otherwise. According to TBS it has been used in the past against a parent who demanded a teacher resign after failing to prevent bullies from hitting his son and against several teens who forced a male classmate to wear girls’ clothing in public. A Civil Code cognate was also used against an employer who tried to force a worker to quit by putting him in a room by himself and assigning him the task of finding 100 new customers a day. The anti-coercion law can also be used to prosecute dodgy companies that send merchandise to people who didn’t order it and then demand payment.

If this law is increasingly cited in cases where people try to coerce apologies, it could have an even more profound effect on public civility, which, after all, is predicated on the concept that society has matured to the point where individual members know how to behave properly toward others. The main issue with dogeza is not that its meaning as a gesture has been diminished by overuse, but that in a world where class and other arbitrary differences are supposed to be irrelevant to the treatment of one’s fellow humans, dogeza is, in and of itself, repugnant. What was irritating about its utility as a plot device on “Hanzawa Naoki” was not the overwrought presentation, but the pretension to seriousness, because it’s really a stupid way to make a point.

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