Japan's Empty Bow

I have been on a rant of late regarding what I call the "Empty Japanese Bow".

As we know, the Japanese bow in business is deeply rooted in cultural tradition. The bow represents everything from respect and customer appreciation to remorse and apology. In short, the bow in Japan symbolizes all aspects of Japanese life.

I have lived and worked in Japan for almost 30 years. I learned early on that, like a handshake, one can quickly come to know about a person's character and personality based on how the bow is actually done. This is why the bow is so crucial to business. Done well and others know your level of experience in Japan as well as your sincerity. Done poorly and counterparts may be left with a less-than-favorable impression.

In recent years, I have come to feel that the Japanese bow (in times of scandal and crisis) has lost its true meaning. When a company or person has done wrong, going before the public to self-deprecate and ask for forgiveness was expected and accepted. But these days for me, the bow is increasingly an empty gesture done out of expectation but lacking in sincerity.

Scandal after scandal comes and press conference after press conference leaders bow to apologize to the public and express personal and organizational regret. And photo after photo appears where I feel the act is nothing than going through the motions. It is increasingly meaningless. After all, why were auto emissions lied about in the first place? Why was tainted blood allowed to enter the health system? Why was food mislabeled to begin with? Why weren't improprieties corrected when first discovered? The list goes on an on.

Perhaps it is just me, but the number of scandals is increasingly dramatically in Japan which brings to question the level of capability and management skill of company leaders. It also calls in to question the ethical and moral decision-making inside some of Japan's largest and most prestigious firms.

You can say to me, "Such incidents happen all over the world. Why talk just about Japan?" And I would agree with you. But few places in the world take such pride in the company name they represent. And few places in the world use the bow as a tool to communicate that pride.

For me, the pride is increasingly lost and the bow is increasingly empty.