the Japanese apology and healing art of saying thank you
Among the many dazzling new customs I’ve been immersing myself in everyday here in Japan, the constant usage of the words for 'i'm sorry' and 'thank you' have taught me so much. At first when everything was new and strange and fascinating, I started involuntarily copying mannerisms from what i observed around me, and i found myself saying thank you all the time. It felt strange to say it this much but I also really liked how it made me feel. It was like my days were literally filled with appreciation. And just as it's common to say thank you, it's also common to say i'm sorry which can also double as 'excuse my intrusion'. And there are different degrees of apology depending on how it's said. It can vary from a 'sorry for your discomfort in holding that door open for me', to 'I'm so sorry I offended you in that way, I promise to never make that mistake again'.
My first time experiencing the layered nuance of a Japanese apology was on my JAL (Japanese Airlines) flight from New York to Tokyo over 3 years ago. I neglected to order a vegan meal and couldn’t eat the food I was served so I politely declined it. Honestly I was only extremely exhausted in all the ways and wanted desperately to sleep but the flight attendants were persistent to see me eat something that I had to stay awake and engage.
After what seemed like a long endless series of very confusing back and forths, aching to end the apparent debacle, I somehow realized I needed to say I was sorry. At first it felt confusing because according to American standards i didn't do anything wrong. In fact by those standards, I was actually saving the airline money and doing them a favor by not eating their food! But there i was in my aisle seat in a huddle amongst three flight attendants, in a very serious meeting about my well-being. It was Japanese hospitality at its finest. But also it felt like three strangers were genuinely concerned about me. To apologize was a way to acknowledge all they were doing for me, for making them work harder than they needed to, and for causing them added worry and stress on top of their usual work. And as soon as I did, the woman I was speaking to suddenly changed from a posture of stress to one of ease. Her face went from overcast to sunny. She and I even laughed a little together like instant friends. Like magic a conflict more than resolved, its very emotional landscape was transformed.
This was a tiny little window into what lay ahead for me as my journey from West to East officially began. To an American, it's absolutely exhausting and even oppressive to think about everyone else's feelings and well-being before our own, but to Japanese people this is normal and customary. Though I may never really understand how exactly, this kind of seriousness creates an energy of gratitude and respect. Can you just imagine a world where everyone felt gratitude and respect for each other?
Instead of idle chatter among bored and underpaid co-workers, there's quiet focus on the work at hand and extreme attention to detail that makes any experience a positive and delightful one for customers. Even shopping at a convenience store feels somehow refreshing and is positively uplifting.
I wondered if this life philosophy would even "work" in a place like say NYC? I'm doubtful. It's just too dog eat dog. Like I mentioned earlier, there's a quality to the social fabric of life here that's been worked on, fine tuned, nurtured, and corrected for a very long time, 15 million years to be exact.
There's also a way to correctly receive the apology or the thank you. Like until it's properly received the transaction remains incomplete.
To understand where and when an apology is needed, the exact degree required, and then to give and receive it has such a sacred undertone and emotional mastery to it that, again, is exhausting and also exhilarating to someone willing to learn something new.
What it all comes down to is: Responsibility.
To be responsible for ourselves, and also making it our responsibility to ensure that those around us are taken care of is a testament to how strong we can become. No amount of responsibility is too big or too grave.
Every time I said thank you or i'm sorry for something, i felt myself taking a new kind of responsibility for my actions and that was my act of service to those who received it and me. It felt joyful and there was never anything to complain about.
To take it way deeper into the supercosmic metaphysical (as one does!), I started to give intention to my words. For example, not apologizing to placate, but apologizing to transform something. Giving an apology for whatever is in need of one and using the moment as a doorway.
This is what I'll call a healing apology, so strong in its intention that it reaches into the heart of the receiver. Much like the Hawaiian Hoʻoponopono Prayer, the apology goes to where all memory lives and brings its medicine of reconciliation.
In a moment, an apology can transform an entire life, my life, her life, their lives, the spirit of the land even. Also as an American in Japan, specifically in Okinawa, there's another sort of responsibility to make things right. So as is customary here, I say I’m sorry as much as I can. Even though I don't need to, I say it with sincerity and with love. And also I remove myself completely. It has nothing to do with me. I only offer my voice and sincerity, and through me an apology is given. And this apology is a peace offering. And somehow in some way I feel lighter and happier and somehow healed in my own heart too. I’m not sure how it all works but resolution is given even to me, the messenger, perhaps from those whose apology I so desperately need and have been waiting for for a very long time.
In my healing sessions with people from all over the world, I can attest to the fact that there are too many people waiting for their apology, waiting for generations, centuries, for millions and millions of years. And those who need to give it won't, because they either don't know how, or just don't know.
The power of “I’m sorry” is profound. While the words are simple, they can bring an exquisite medicine to the receiver.
The way the flight attendant's demeanor eased tremendously once I apologized for neglecting to order my meal in advance and for inconveniencing her, showed me that, with understanding, reconciliation can come, simply. And when it does something warm and unconditionally accepting, loving and free, like friendship, can take root.