‘Mind the gap,” the British warn commuters stepping off trains. It’s good advice in East-West relations, too, since there are some gaps that appear to be unbridgeable. A rather wide one was revealed last week in the hubbub in the United States over the apology of New York Yankees left fielder Hideki Matsui.

Mr. Matsui, as all Japan probably knew within seconds of it happening, broke his wrist May 4 as he dove for a catch in the first inning of the Yankees’ 5-3 loss to their baseball archrivals the Boston Red Sox. The injury arguably hurt the Yankees’ star even more than it is likely to hurt his team: It snapped a streak of consecutive games that dated back to August 1993, when Mr. Matsui was playing for the Yomiuri Giants. Anyone who had just seen an almost 13-year-long effort abruptly ended could be forgiven for feeling sorry for himself, however briefly.

Yet Mr. Matsui has not voiced a split second’s worth of self-pity or even self-concern. The very next day, the popular player was deflecting all expressions of sympathy.

“Due to this injury, I feel very sorry and, at the same time, very disappointed to have let my teammates down,” he said in a statement after learning that he would be sidelined for up to three months. “I will do my best to fully recover and return to the field to help my team once again.”

Yankees manager Joe Torre initially gave an excellent impression of having grasped why Mr. Matsui’s first instinct was to apologize. “It’s all about responsibility — what he thinks his responsibility is to this team, this organization — because the Yankees committed to him and he feels it’s a two-way street in that regard,” Mr. Torre told reporters in a sentence that a Japanese etiquette expert could not have bettered. “He’s done that before, where he’s made an error, he’s come up and apologized to me.”

Yet by the following Tuesday, when Mr. Matsui visited his teammates at Yankee Stadium, both player and manager seemed to feel that the surprise and, in some cases, outright perplexity expressed in the U.S. media made further explanation necessary. So Mr. Matsui spelled it out as patiently as if Americans were a class of backward second-graders. “I apologized to my teammates because I’m not going to be there, that they have to battle, given the situation I’m in,” he said.

Mr. Torre, meanwhile, was having second thoughts, perhaps because he’d read one too many articles over the weekend pointing out that Mr. Matsui had really done nothing wrong. “It’s a cultural thing,” he said in defense of the injured star whom he has likened to the Rock of Gibraltar. But “apologizing was a little much, because it’s not like he hurt himself skiing.”

Right there lies the cultural gap. On the one side, you have the concept of an apology as something dictated not by the effect of the action but by the intention of the actor. Has a person “done something wrong” — such as selfishly risking an injury on his off-time, say, or taking performance-enhancing drugs or assaulting someone? If not, the thinking goes, what’s the point of apologizing?

On the other side, you have the concept of an apology as something dictated solely by the damage done. The way Mr. Matsui evidently saw it, the case for an apology following his game injury was crystal-clear: The Yankees were harmed by it, however inadvertently, and he was sorry that was the case. From this perspective, why not apologize?

Such an interpretation had apparently never occurred to many Americans — although women might argue that it’s only American men who have trouble with it. Some questioned Mr. Matsui’s response, prompting Tuesday’s clarifications. Others, though, held him up as an example of rare sportsmanship, even a kind of nobility.

“Wouldn’t it be wonderful if other athletes hopped on board this apology train?” one columnist wrote. “It’s undoubtedly hoping for too much, but maybe [U.S. athletes] will learn from Matsui,” wrote another, noting that almost any time an American star “messes up, their first responsibility is to stiff-arm the issue and insult our intelligence.”

It is nice to see Mr. Matsui getting the credit he deserves for being a classy human being and showing his country’s customs in a good light. It does not detract from his action, however, to suggest that Americans should not misunderstand the limits of Japan’s culture of apology. It is one thing to apply the “harm test” to one’s own team, or company, or compatriots. It is another thing to be able to apply it to victims of one’s actions who lie outside those categories. There are more gaps in the world than the East-West one.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.