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Japanese tradition of apology, Western worry about admitting guilt can clash

By DAVID ALLEN AND CHIYOMI SUMIDA | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 19, 2002

CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — Japanese justice means always saying you’re sorry.

And that’s what hangs Westerners up.

The custom of apology, called jidan, is long and honored in Japan, but it’s a confusing concept to Americans, Japanese legal experts say.

In Japan, a person involved in an accident or charged with a crime is expected to apologize to the other injured parties — whether guilt is admitted or not.

In the United States, a person is innocent until proven guilty. Period. Apologizing would be like admitting guilt.

That’s one reason an apology was not immediately forthcoming from submarine commander Scott Waddle after the nuclear submarine USS Greeneville sank a Japanese fisheries training vessel, killing nine, in February 2001. His failure to personally apologize to the families of the dead and the survivors of the accident was a major sticking point in a compensation settlement.

Two of the victims’ families refused to settle with the U.S. Navy until Waddle visited them and apologized. Waddle, now retired, traveled to the victims’ hometown over the weekend and made a tearful public apology.

The concept of jidan also is at play on Okinawa, where residents are upset about a sexual assault case involving a Marine Corps major and a longtime foreign resident of Okinawa who works on Camp Courtney.

The woman is charging Maj. Michael J. Brown with sexually assaulting her Nov. 2 after she gave him a ride from the base after the officers’ club closed for the night.

The major, assigned to the command element of the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Force, says she’s making the story up because he declined her sexual advances.

Okinawa politicians and anti-base activists clamored for apologies from Brown and the island’s top military commanders. They also objected to the United States’ refusal to hand Brown over to Japanese authorities prior to indictment.

Brown staunchly has denied his guilt. But his family members have told Stars and Stripes he was considering paying his accuser what Americans commonly call jidan or “gomen money,” if it would mean the charges might be dropped.

Saying the case is a matter for Japanese courts, U.S. Marine officials have declined to comment on either the accusations or their effect on Brown’s future with the service. Brown reportedly is one year from qualifying for full retirement benefits — which could be jeopardized if a Japanese court finds him guilty.

Brown’s family members have said they believe making an apology is a formal part of the Japanese legal system.

It’s a common misconception, says Okinawa attorney Satoshi Kawamitsu.

Jidan is a way to settle cases, such as sexual assault, by giving more priority to protecting the privacy of the victimized woman than by seeking justice through the court system,” Kawamitsu said. However, it is entirely a matter between the victim and the accused.

Once the accused person is indicted, the trial goes forward, regardless of how much compensation money has been paid, Kawamitsu said.

Historically, more than 95 percent of all cases that go to trial in Japan end in convictions. The trials themselves often appear heavily focused on how remorseful the defendant appears.

Payment of a hefty jidan is one way of showing remorse.

“In the American system there is a plea-bargaining process,” Kawamitsu said. “In the Japanese system such an arrangement does not exist. Jidan, in a way, is an equivalent arrangement.

“In civil cases, restitution money and truthful apologies can save people from going though a lengthy court battle,” he said. “Even in criminal cases, sincere remorse and restitution money would be taken into consideration when the court determines punishment.”

Sexual assault incidents are somewhat different than other criminal cases, however. Japanese women often feel ashamed at having been victims and avoid the pain of going through a trial, said Kenichi Asano, a professor at the Doshisha University in Kyoto.

“Social awareness of sexual crimes in Japan is far behind other countries,” Asano said. “It’s probably second worst only to Muslim countries. That is why only 5 percent of the sexual crimes in Japan are ever reported to the police, compared to a 50 percent reporting rate in the United States.”

And women on Okinawa have other fears, he said.

“A case like this, with a military person involved, automatically becomes a political issue, attracting large media attention,” Asano said. Many women accept the jidan and drop the charges rather than be put on trial themselves in the media, he said.

But it may be too late for Brown to pay gomen money to avoid prosecution, said Minoru Uechi, a Naha lawyer who handles criminal cases.

“If he hopes to settle the case through jidan, there is not much time left,” Uechi said. “A jidan, or out-of-court settlement, is possible only before indictment.”

The apology is the key that Americans don’t understand, he said.

“In Japan, to apologize does not necessarily admit wrongdoing,” he said. “A person can apologize to the other party for what has happened without admitting to fault. In the Japanese culture, one is expected to offer apologies as a form of expressing compassion for the predicament the other party was put in.

“Of course, the words used in such apologies must be carefully selected, especially when you are wrongly accused,” he said. “But being compassionate and considerate to the other party is accepted favorably in the Japanese judicial system.”

Again, he said, the clock is ticking for Brown.

“The military should have provided him with a lawyer as soon as he was suspected of being involved,” Uechi said.

Under the present status of forces agreement, which governs relations between Japan and the U.S. military, “a servicemember suspected of committing a crime is provided with a lawyer only after the indictment, and that is often too late. By then, he has already made statements to police investigators and the prosecutors,” Uechi said.

“In other words, all the irreparable damages have been done by the time an attorney undertakes the case.”


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