This Sunday, as the Golden Week holidays began in Japan, Sony execs Kazuo Hirai, Shinji Hasejima and Shiro Kambe answered reporters' questions about the PSN breach that put the private details of over 70 million gamers at risk. The execs didn't just apologize for the breach, but bowed for seven seconds.
In the world of Japanese corporate fuck ups, the bow (ojigi in Japanese) is a regular at press conferences. Whether it's Snow Brand Milk's food poisoning scandal or Toyota's recall, bows are a requisite for a public apology. Execs put their hands by their side and bow at a 45 degree angle, with their face looking directly at the floor. It must be 45 degrees—35 degrees is a greeting. Dogeza is a more extreme style of bowing; the person gets on their hands and knees to apologize. Execs typically do not use this style of bowing when apologizing.
The bow isn't only a contrite gesture, but a greeting. Japanese people use bows for a variety of purposes, from saying "hello" to "goodbye" and, of course, saying "sorry". In the years following World War II, a simple wave has become more acceptable for a greeting, but the traditional greeting is a bow. It's also a gesture of respect. Even today, school kids stand and bow when their teacher enters the room. Even at many supermarkets, cashiers will give a slight bow when handing over the change. And at many shops, clerks will bow after customers make a purchase.
It doesn't even matter if the customer can see the bow or not—yesterday, I saw a car salesman at a Lexus dealership bow for a good minute or so as a customer picked up his car after having it serviced and drove it down the road. The driver couldn't see that Lexus salesman kept his head down; everyone else, however, could. It's a visual manifestation.
There are a variety of bows, and how deep you lower your head correlates to the gesture's formality. In Japan, which still has an emperor (albeit, in figurehead form), the idea of showing that you are lower than someone as a sign of respect is important. When apologizing, bowing is to show that you are physically lower; this notion is instilled on young children who are told to bow (or are forced by their parents) if they do something really bad to someone else.
In Japan, bowing is equated with apologizing, so seeing a trio of Sony exces on television bowing over a clusterfuck isn't a big deal in Japan. These types of press conferences always start (and end) with bows. A few years back, one American politician called for Wall Street execs to bow for their mismanagement, but in Japan, these spectacles are not a big deal. It's a visual representation of people saying they're sorry. Whether they really mean their apology, that's besides the point. Like the seventh inning stretch in baseball, it's not just expected, it's a photo op.
Corporate bows are usually held for around ten or fifteen seconds. When the former Mitsubishi Motors Corp. apologized for two-decades of product defects, he bowed for a full minute. Sony's bow was seven seconds. Cynics will read into that what they will.
During some occasions, saying "sorry" and bowing isn't enough. When Japan Airlines flight 123 crashed in 1985, killing 520 passengers, JAL's president personally visited all 520 families. And when he finished that, he resigned. JAL's maintenance manager and the engineer who oversaw the plane's improper repairs made the ultimate sacrifices with their apologies: both committed suicide.
For more about bowing and apologizing in Japan, read this post on NBC's World Blog.