The art of the Japanese company apology

by Peter Brieger, Agence France-Presse

Posted at May 02 2015 09:18 AM | Updated as of May 02 2015 05:18 PM

The art of the Japanese company apology 1
Sarah Casanova, president of McDonald's Holdings Co. (Japan), bows in apology for a string of food safety incidents involving its products at a press conference in Tokyo on Feb. 5, 2015. Photo by Kyodo

TOKYO - Imagine you're the head of a US 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 organisations.

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

Act 1: Wear dark colors, look grim and apologise 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 the 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.

'No bow low enough'

Television and social media have made it all the more important to convince a Japanese 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 airbag 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 worked their way up the ladder and are paid much less than overseas counterparts with their boatload of stock options -- and egos to match.

"US 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."

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