When Sony met Tokyo reporters last month to finally explain the battery debacle that kept the company in the headlines for more than two months, it raised eyebrows not for what it said but for what it did – or rather didn't do.
In a country where the image one projects on the rest of society is vitally important, Sony executives on stage surprised some with the bow they gave when offering their apology to consumers.
Yutaka Nakagawa, executive deputy president of Sony, made his apology to consumers and customers and then bowed slightly while remaining seated. It wasn't the full-on bow of humility that's become a common sight on the evening news here in recent months as Japan has swung from one corporate scandal to another.
Apologising and bowing is something of an art form in Japan. A simple "I'm sorry" won't do. If you don't get just the right balance of humility in your words the apology risks being treated with contempt. Bowing is equally important. The angle and the time you bow establishes, in the event of an apology, just how sorry you are.
Consider this explanation, which still holds true today, from The Japanese, a book published in 1934 by the top-class Fujiya Hotel to help explain the country and its mysterious ways to visitors:
"On meeting on the street, for instance, two Japanese, especially women, bend double for what appears to a foreigner to be a dozen times in greeting each other. 'How do you do, Miss Suzuki?' Mrs. Sato asks, and she bows, when the addressee bows low too, saying, 'How do you do, Mrs. Sato?' or 'I am well, thank you.'
"'I missed the meeting with you the other day,' one says with an apologetic bow, and the other responds with 'And we also missed you,' accompanied with a bow. 'How is your baby? Is she all right now?' 'She is all right, thank you." And both bow to each other. In this way they may bow five or six times and even more for anything and everything they may have to thank or make an apology for."
Reporters were already questioning Sony's handling of the crisis. Neither CEO Howard Stringer nor Ryoji Chubachi, president and CEO of the electronics business, had appeared in front of the media since the battery problems surfaced in August . At the late-October news conference they were also no-shows. For some, the bow was confirmation that the company wasn't really sorry at all.
Sony counters that the criticism is unwarranted and that observers are reading too much into the bow. The news conference was about explaining the battery problem. It wasn't held for the sole purpose of apologising and so the bow, to which thought had been given, was deemed appropriate, it said.