Japanese Customer Service Means Always Having to Say You’re Sorry


The only thing we deliver or are trying to deliver to our guests is satisfaction . . . we have nothing else…In our business, no excuse is accepted when something goes wrong…”

Koichi Satoh
President and General Manager, Hotel Okura

One of the common complaints I hear from Japanese folks about American customer service is that when Americans break a promise, rather than apologizing they make excuses. This is more a gap in cultural expectations than an indictment of American manners. And it begs some questions:

Why are Americans so uncomfortable apologizing?

Why is it that when confronted with criticism, many Americans tend to get defensive?

And why would the Japanese be any different?

American behavior is driven to a large degree by how Americans define the concept of responsibility within the context of a society that values individualism. So back to the first two questions: why are Americans uncomfortable apologizing and why so defensive? The answer is that the mere act of apologizing in America is often interpreted as an admission of personal (read “individual”) guilt. After all, someone’s got to accept responsibility. No surprise that no one wants to step forward and take the rap as it can wreak havoc on one’s reputation or career. For this reason, when Americans give “reasons” for making a mistake they are, more often than not, on the defensive–victims of circumstance outside of their control. No one told me about the schedule change! And so on.

In contrast, the Japanese tend to dilute responsibility by divvying it up amongst team members. And since apologizing is less an admission of guilt than an expression of regret that someone was inconvenienced, it makes it a lot easier for Japanese to apologize than Americans. So everyone apologizes and it’s all good!

The Japanese put a lot of importance on honoring social commitments. The Confucian code of morality dictates that if a promise is made, then the honorable man must do his utmost to fulfill it at all costs. Not to do so would be a terrible loss of face. This helps explain why the Japanese have less tolerance for accepting “reasons” given after a promise has gone unfulfilled, especially if the broken promise involves the almighty customer. Most explanations deemed reasonable by American standards would be called “excuses” by most Japanese. And while this doesn’t jibe well with the American concept of “fairness”, it’s how the Japanese see the world through their Confucian-colored glasses. Breaking a promise in Japanese society requires some pretty dire circumstances before you can expect any sympathy or understanding.

So if a mistake is made with your Japanese customer (whether it was your fault or not), the best thing to do is bow and say Moshi wake gozaimasen, literally, “There is no excuse.” How interesting that the most polite way of apologizing in Japanese in essence forbids the offender to even consider making an excuse.

A Japanese executive at a large tier-one automotive company told me years ago that all his suppliers made mistakes, but the good ones responded quickly to rectify their problems. The message here is, if you goof up with a Japanese customer don’t hesitate to apologize. Then focus on rectifying the problem immediately. Sincerity carries a lot of weight with the Japanese, so offering a small gift, discount or concession goes a long way in making things right. In the end the Japanese customer will judge you on both your effort and end results. Fulfilling your promise to “take care of the problem immediately” is not only your ticket to redemption; it’s an opportunity to grow even closer to your customer.

For more on this topic, check out American Customer Service Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry.

For more on Japanese-style customer service, check out this short clip of me delivering a customer-service seminar at Halekulani.

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2009


28 responses to “Japanese Customer Service Means Always Having to Say You’re Sorry

  1. Aloha Tim! Excellent post as always. Brings back memories:

    I once had a Japanese executive secretary in Aomori who could not bring herself to apologize to colleagues (Japanese and Americans) but had no problem apologizing to Japanese customers.

    In another case, I sold a $600,000 USA made log home to a Japanese customer and proceeded to have a nightmare experience with the Japanese builder we contracted with (they never gave us an estimate and we ended up with a $400K overrun)…the builder refused to say he was sorry for not letting us know of the potential overrun…and I had to apologize big time to the customer (especially the builder called her to tell her if he didn’t get paid by the foreigner he would burn her new log home down which turns out was his legal right)…ate $400K on that deal…but in the end the ability to say “I am sorry, I screwed up, We will make you whole” saved the day…although we did exit the log home importing business.

    Was chuckling thinking back to the power of “hai” in showing one understands what is being said…and then when I used it and then explained later that I had never committed to that specific request the Japanese got quite irate that it is OK for Japanese to say “hai” but not a “foreigner”…even though the conversation was 100% in Japanese.

    Keep up the insightful posts…and I apologize in advance if any of the above comments were not relevant.

  2. I wonder why there seems to be a high suicide rate amongst Japanese CEO’s who’s companies aren’t doing so well.

    Are they too “shamed” to say sorry and would rather just go off to another world when their company collapses?

  3. Grif, thanks again for making a very relevant point that I failed to mention: when a mistake is made you apologize whether it’s your fault or not. (And I made a slight modification to the piece to reflect this–in your honor, my friend :-)) As you alluded to, the honorable guy in the middle must bear a disproportionate share of the burden. Shikata ga nai–such is life in a Confucian society.

  4. Damon, the suicide IS the apology. See Samurai Justice for the gory details.

  5. Ah yes… just revisited… and once again brought back memories I’d rather forget.

  6. Aloha Damon and Tim! There is the apology aspect to a suicide but there is also an economic aspect. In the U.S. a suicide does not allow beneficiaries to receive life insurance payouts…in Japan it is AOK. In my Japan Rotary Club, 4 of 10 charter members who I knew very well committed suicide when a large joint venture they were part of failed. If it had only been because of the “shame factor” I don’t think they would have committed suicide…I think the life insurance payouts plus the shame factor allowed them to commit suicide knowing their loved ones and their creditors would be AOK financially.

    Imagine if we changed the life insurance payout suicide regulations here in the U.S…..

  7. I didn’t realize that.

    It must be expensive to get life insurance for a person with a stressful job or they must pay a lot.

    If the US changed life insurance policies to the point where they paid out for them, I think we may see something similar to what is happening in Japan and that’s pretty scary.

    It also makes me wonder about some of the “accidental deaths” that have happened to a few people that I can’t remember their names off the top of my head.

  8. Putting on my cultural anthropologist hat I’m compelled to ask, Why does the U.S. not allow beneficiaries to receive life insurance payouts in the case of suicide, but Japan does?

    Whatever angle you view reality from, it still boils down to cultural values. Suicide is a socially sanctioned way to end your life in Japan. If it weren’t Japanese insurance companies wouldn’t be paying suicide benefits. Extending this logic, no surprise that a (largely) Judeo-Christian society like America wouldn’t condone insurance companies’ “rewarding” suicide. That’s why I can’t imagine the scenario Damon postulated: American society would never allow it, nor would American insurance companies want to let go of their money. It’s not good for the bottom line!

    That said, I’m not implying that payouts by Japanese insurance companies don’t reinforce the suicide option–of course they do. Grif’s point actually reinforces the idea that cultural values are powerful, self-sustaining drivers of culture.

  9. Quite frankly… it’s a CRIME here in the US society.

    You try to kill yourself… your libel to be put behind bars, either in a jail or in a hospital ward.

    I think we don’t value life as much as the Japanese society in a sense.

    You commit suicide here in the US.. people ask what is wrong on the outside of ones life… the people around them and what would lead to the suicide.

    In Japan… is it “honorary”?

  10. Same question applies: Why is suicide a crime in the U.S. but not in Japan?

    The answer: It’s driven by our cultural values. In Christianity it’s a sin to take your own life; in Shinto/Japanese Buddhism it isn’t. So it makes sense that one society would outlaw it and the other wouldn’t.

    And yes, killing yourself is considered an honorable way to go in Japan, especially if it is done as an apology. As a side note, Japan has an extremely high rate of teenage suicide.

  11. Above Mutsu in Aomori, where we lived for 10 years, there is a dormant volcano with a beautiful lake in the center. The lake area is called Osorezan or “Evil Mountain”.

    The buddhist temple which calls Osorezan home was founded by a traveling monk from China who was looking for a location which combined both the elements of “heaven” and “hell”.

    Osorezan definitely meets that criteria.

    How is it related to suicide? It is said that children who die before their parents have committed a “sin” and are assigned to “limbo” which is represented by Osorezan.

    Parents from all over Japan come to Osorezan to pile up stones so that their dead children can climb out of limbo to heaven.

    The evil spirits of course continuously knock down the pile of rocks….each decorated with a toy beloved by the dead child.

    There is also the blood pond (the water runs red) and the beautiful lake with the white sand beach with no living creatures and supposedly impossible for a person to swim in without dying (quite a few according to legend have tried).

    Until Tim talked about the teenage suicide rate hadn’t given Osorezan much thought…and I wonder if teenagers who committ suicide are assigned to limbo?

    I think it is considered a sin because they won’t be around to take care of their parents in old age.

    Will leave this topic of exploration up to our resident Japanese-American cross cultural expert….

    My family was at Osorezan last week where they took my son in law who is a local boy for the first time and he had a LOT of questions about the “why” and the “how” of Osorezan which I am not sure my family was able to answer….

  12. It helps to put the role of Buddhism in context in Japan. Indigenous Shinto had no concept of an afterlife (or “sin” for that matter). Shinto was simply about living in harmony with the spirits in this world. Not until Buddhism was officially “imported” from the continent in the early Seventh Century did afterlife concepts enter into the Japanese consciousness. Until then the Japanese assigned no moral significance to death, which means no one was “judged” when they died (which is why Japan’s war criminals are still “honored” today.) Once Buddhism found favor with the ruling elite in ancient Japan, the afterlife–and the moral significance implied–became “fashionable”. The afterlife stuck for awhile but didn’t have the cultural legs to survive. By the late Edo period heaven and hell were more the butt of jokes than serious religious beliefs. (Maybe I’ll do a relevant rakugo story on this topic in the near future.) My point is that the notion of suicide as “sinful” behavior never stuck in Japan, even though (as Grif pointed out) the concept may have existed in continental Buddhism.

    Today of course (strike through that!) few Japanese believe in the afterlife. But here’s an interesting twist: I know MANY Japanese atheists who believe in ghosts! How is this possible? My theory is that although Shinto has no afterlife, it has lots of room for “spirits” in THIS world, a perfect place for ghosts to hang out and be seen. 🙂 One man’s ghost is another man’s God!

  13. Aloha Tim! I had an economic profeessor who drilled into his students that whenever the phrase “of course” comes up, view it as an opportunity to double check the assumptions behind the “of course”.

    It seems to me that many Japanese do believe in an afterlife…although it might be a lot different than what most Americans believe.

    My late father in law has told us through mediums (who take on his voice and share information only he would know) that the afterlife is much like the current life.

    My Japanese family regularly communicates with various relatives who have passed on and offer prayers on a regular basis to ease their time in the “after life”.

    Not an expert on religion but just passing on my observations…

    And of course the “of course” caught my eye!

  14. Okay, will purge “of course” from my vocabulary. And I’m still confident in my position.

    Lots of exceptions to any cultural tendency. My research and experiences obviously don’t match yours. It’s okay to agree to disagree.

    It’s common for Japanese to “communicate” with deceased relatives via the Butsudan. They often display a picture of the deceased, “feed” them regularly, even place a beer next to the bowl of rice. And this behavior just reinforces my thesis, that the Japanese are a this-worldly sort, always bringing the spirits into this world, not to mention practicing ancestor worship. (Lots of literature to support this, btw.)

    If you’re interested in learning more about Japanese attitudes toward death a good read is “Ways of Thinking of Eastern Peoples” by Nakamura Hajime where he talks about the belief in Japan that “the phenomenal world is absolute”. Very enlightening take on how Buddhism spread from India through Tibet, China and eventually ending up in Japan. Also check out any books by Stuart D.B. Picken (my former thesis advisor at ICU). He’s one of the most knowledgeable Westerners on the Shinto religion and Japanese attitudes toward death.

  15. Interesting discussion..

    I’d think that a Buddhist/Vedantic-derived culture questions the living existence of the indivisible “self”, and as such, the idea of death of such a construct would be impossible. Such a view wouldn’t preclude the existence of soul or spirit. Rather it would strengthen the acceptance of non-living intelligence and karma.

    ..maybe even beer.

  16. Grif,Darren and Damon, you inspired me to re-read some of Nakamura’s musings on Japanese culture. Twas a fun read twenty-five years later 🙂 It’s kind of long, but interesting so I wanted to share it.

    Here’s how Nakamura describes Japanese-style “this-worldliness”:

    “While religions of the world very often tend to regard this world as the land of impurity and the other world as the blessed land of purity where one seeks the Heaven of eternal happiness, primitive Shintoism recognizes the intrinsic value of life in this world. Each one of the Japanese people is considered a descendant of gods and goddesses. In primitive Shintoism, one can find no profound reflections either upon the soul or upon death.”

    Nakamura goes on to say that, “…it is also natural that death is universally abhorred. But it appears that the ancient Japanese expressed little fear of death, and rarely worried about life after death. Japanese mythology as a whole is attached to this world and makes much of this life. Consequently, such a metaphysical concept as karma or moral law of cause and effect (post-mortem rewards for good deeds and punishment for bad ones) is lacking. They regarded death as impurity, and enjoyed solely the life of this world.”

    Now here’s where Buddhism comes into the picture and makes an impact in Japan:

    “Shintoism alone was mingled with animism, Shamanism, and the tendency to attach great importance to a limited social nexus, so that this-worldliness in Japan came to assume a number of deviations and variations.

    “In confronting Buddhism as an imported system of culture, the traditional Japanese culture was too weak to resist it. Was it then not improbable, as Buddhism was transplanted into this country and spread among the people, that the traditional Japanese way of thinking, tending toward this-worldliness, should have completely given way to Buddhism? Buddhism, like a flood of water rushing forth from a broken dam, spread all over Japan within a very short time. It was, however, impossible for Buddhism to change completely the inclination to this-worldliness in the Japanese general public. On the contrary, it was the Japanese themselves that transformed Buddhism, which they accepted from the continent, as a religion centered upon this world.

    “With the advent of Buddhism, the Japanese came to think seriously of life after death. But even then Buddhism was accepted as something this-worldly. All through the Nara and Heian periods, almost all the sects of Buddhism aimed at tangible rewards in this world.”

    Now fast forward to the Tokugawa period:

    “This-worldliness became even stronger as the nation proceeded into the Tokugawa period. The this-worldly and anti-religious tendencies were already manifest among the merchants’ thoughts in the early Tokugawa periods..

    And FINALLY!!! 🙂

    “It is not surprising that the this-worldly tendency became especially pre-eminent during the modern period in Japan and that it even caused the emergence of materialism.”

    (Blogger’s note: I understand Nakamura’s last statement but not sure I totally agree–at least some of Japanese “materialism”, I think, is driven by rank-consciousness and love of status. But Nakamura makes an interesting point. T.R. Reid cast brand consumerism as the new “religion” in Japan. Food for thought…)

  17. It is interesting to see how the Japanese can be so truly customer oriented. In fact by apologizing, the company is saying: “you are more important to me than my pride”

    This relates quite well to something I posted ( http://bit.ly/21eAif) a couple of weeks ago about a colleague of mine making herself look “foolish” to ensure that another colleague did not.

  18. “And since apologizing is less an admission of guilt than an expression of regret that someone was inconvenienced, it makes it a lot easier for Japanese to apologize than Americans. So everyone apologizes and it’s all good!”

    So very true.

    One of my adult students back in the late 80’s worked for Hitachi. I just so happened to have a Hitachi VCR that stopped working for no apparent reason. I made the “mistake” of mentioning it to him one evening after class and wanted to know where I could get it repaired. Well, you’d think I blamed him for it not working as I was totally unprepared for what ensued.

    He immediately apologized profusely for the defective product and insisted on taking it to his factory where he worked to have it fixed. I balked, but he continued his apologizing and practically demanded that I turn it over to him which I did. To top it off, he returned to my house about a half hour later with his own VCR for me to use so I wouldn’t be inconvenienced while mine was being repaired!

    How’s that for customer service? An employee apologizing for his entire firm and personally taking the product to the factory to have it repaired! Would, or could that ever happen in the US? I think not.

    My VCR was personally returned to me about a week later with more apologies along with a 10 pack of blank cassettes, courtesy of the company, for a “defective” product!

    As Erik mentioned above, ‘In fact by apologizing, the company is saying: “you are more important to me than my pride” ‘

    In Japan, even today, they live by those words whereas, in the US they only pay lip service to the phrase that “the customer is always right and most important.”

  19. Thanks for that great story, Joe. I’ll use it as a case study on Japanese customer service in my next seminar. And thanks for checking in!

  20. And thanks for checking in Erik. I checked out your blog–we seem to share some common ground and a similar cross-cultural perspective. Please stop by again and share your ideas. Aloha!

  21. So many great insights up here, and such an interesting direction Tim’s original posting has taken. I agree, Joe, such a great story, and astute of you to recognize the ‘mistake’ in mentioning the malfunction to begin with. We’ve all fallen into that trap in Japan — guilty as charged.
    And speaking of guilt, what stands out for me in these pieces is the distinction between ‘guilt based’ and ‘shame based’ cultures. Japan is, in accordance with what’s been said here, so clearly not a culture based on guilt as much as shame (How often do we hear ‘Hazukashii….’). This explains Tim’s accurate observation on why the Japanese apologize so easily, for one thing, and why we in the U.S. so often get wrapped up in issues of pride. In Japan, the focus is on the customer — the other party –and profuse apologies serve to preserve that ever-important harmony, whatever the cost, while in the U.S. the focus is on us as individuals, making it excruciating to admit wrongdoing, attaching it to our very core.

    Interestingly, though, my experience has been that what often seems to irk the Japanese is not the lack of apology but rather the lack of reasons explaining the wrongdoing. It is not enough to simply say ‘So sorry I’m late,’ but instead to then back it up: I was stuck in traffic, I got lost (ha! how easy that is), and the like. On that score, I think Japanese feel that to explain softens the blow, while in the American mindset, excuses only make a bad situation worse, and we wouldn’t want to burden someone with lame excuses for what should have been avoided in the first place.

    So….while the overwhelmingly incredible customer service of Japan is hard to refute, there are some qualifications to be mentioned.

  22. Sue,

    Thanks for your insights. I agree with the “softening the blow” observation. I’m guilty of sneaking in my “reason” for goofing up now and then. But reasons have got to be presented with a pained, dramatic expression of abject remorse (lol), followed by lots more apologies and often times a commitment to making sure the mistake never happens again (my manufacturing background bleeding through here). I guess the best way to describe it is, the Japanese magnify the “I’m sorry” part and downplay the “reason”…ideally in a way so it doesn’t come across as an excuse. I once asked an elderly Japanese participant to define the difference between “reason” and “excuse”. His answer was spot on and funny: “If a Japanese person agrees with your reason then it’s a “reason”; if he doesn’t, then it’s an “excuse”. LOL!

    Funny, when I kick off my cross-cultural seminars for mixed Japanese/American workplaces, I always ask the audience to make two lists: 1) what they like about working with the other culture, and 2) the things that drive them crazy about the other culture. Nearly 100% of the time at least one of the Japanese groups in my audience says, “Americans don’t apologize and make excuses.” The real gripe, I believe, isn’t the “excuse” itself, rather that in lieu of an apology Americans are just trying to absolve themselves with reasons or alibis. And it drives Japanese executives crazy. I think it boils down to the almighty power of “moshi wake gozaimasen” to disarm an angry or frustrated Japanese customer. Then following it up with the effort to rectify, minimizing the excuses…

    Just thought of a concrete example: My wife and I tried checking into a hotel in Waikiki with our friends ( a Japanese couple visiting from Japan). When we approached the counter we were told we couldn’t check in because “the computer was down”. To our Japanese friends, it wasn’t a good enough reason not to check us in. To them it was an “excuse” not to do it manually, ya know, without the aid of the almighty computer? At least the hotel should have given us a couple coupons for the bar so we could enjoy the wait a little more. And now that I think about the situation, a hotel manager should’ve been in the lobby telling guests the bad news upfront, rather than making them wait in line for five minutes to find out they couldn’t check in!

    Is it unreasonable to expect employees in this modern high tech world to work without a computer? Is our standard so low? Not JAL’s. When we had a big earthquake here a couple years ago in Hawaii, the only flight that got out of Honolulu airport that day was JAL. Why? Because their staff was trained and directed to issue tickets manually. The down-and-out computers didn’t cut it as an excuse. But that’s the excuse all the other airlines used…no surprise I always fly JAL when I go to Japan!

    • Tim — gomennasai!!!! Somehow, before even reading your reply, my comment from last night found its way on again. [What are the emoticons for ‘Bow Scrape Bow Scrape’??? LOL] Moshiwake nai kedo……….no excuse for such a lapse of technology on this computer which I guarantee will never happen again.

      Oh, and thanks so much for your thoughtful reply, to which I will respond more fully later, after I go and meet with a Japanese friend for coffee!! I hope neither one of us is late, as I’ll not be able to keep a straight face during the excuse section…..!

      • Hi again, Tim.
        As your answer illustrates, sincerity is undoubtedly key in presenting one’s reason/excuse/alibi in Japan, and indifference the mortal enemy. In a culture where form so often trumps content, it seems that even when a lame or even ridiculous ‘reason’ is given, I’ve often thought ‘Yikes, is he/she actually going to get away with that?!’, knowing full well what would happen. And I confess, once I got the scenario down to a science, it paved the way for endless face-saving. What never failed to make me laugh was returning to New York and forgetting to switch back into the US mode of small apologies, small excuses. Talk about strange reactions! LOL.

        Interesting how technology has forced the re-shaping of the excuse umbrella. Texting, IMing, BBMing and the like have forced us all, no matter what culture we live in, to be more ‘creative’ — unless, that is, one lives in the UK, where close to a million mobile phones are flushed down toilets per year!!

  23. Hello all,

    I have to agree with Sue, Japan’s level of customer service is incredible. I am surprised that Americans continue going to restaurants: feeling obligated to tip – for food safety as well – despite the quality of service, the re-use of food, and not being able to return dishes (you don’t know what you will get back).

    In Japan, you can return the dish, and the staff will get on it right away. In return, I continue eating there. Dining out in Japan is truly fun, none of the stress that dining in the US entails.

    Regarding insurance companies. Are life insurance rates higher in Japan than in the US? How about benefits? American companies cut a lot of costs – for example, covering suicide – to make the “bottom line.” However, that should also translate into lower monthly costs, when compared to Japanese companies.


  24. Aloha Tyson! Good question about difference in life insurance between the U.S. and Japan.

    My experience has been that life insurance in Japan was competitive with U.S. life insurance rates.

    A big difference though, is that it appears that a higher percentage of the population has life insurance in Japan than the U.S.

    Also people in Japan seemed to have many more types of life insurance…for example cancer insurance.

    The government, through the postal service is a major player in the life insurance market and it is likely that their policies were less expensive keeping private life insurance companies policies very competitive.

    I witnessed some pretty lenient policy issuance…for example my father in law, who was terminally ill was able to get a $1 million policy from a school buddy of his who sold life insurance.

    Life insurance companies were major players in the pre-bubble real estate fisasco and I suspect got burned badly.

    After the bubble burst the international life insurance companies flooded into the market and made it much more professional and competitive.

    I don’t have any hard data for all of the above, just my observations based on my 20+ years living and running businesses in Japan.

  25. Thanks Grif. A follow-up question: do American insurance companies in Japan cover suicide? Does anyone know if Korean companies do as well.


  26. Aloha Tyson! I don’t know for sure but my guess is that American insurance companies don’t cover suicides for Japanese policy holders.

    Good question about Korean insurance companies. My guess, based on my experiences in Korea, is that they don’t cover suicide.

    As Tim can point out the Japanese have perhaps a unique perspective on suicide from anywhere else in the world.

    Hopefully there is a graduate student reading these posts who might have an interested in researching the issue.

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