A gallant apology - Why did Mitsubishi's brave expression of remorse trigger a domino effect?

Relatives of UK prisoners of war have urged Mitsubishi to extend its apology to all prisoners subjected to forced labour during the Second World War after its historic apology to US POWs at the weekend.

Where will the apology domino effect end, asks Simon Maule
Where will the apology domino effect end, asks Simon Maule
There have also been calls for other Japanese companies to follow Mitsubishi’s lead and apologise for their own behaviour during the war. 

So why has Mitsubishi’s unprecedented apology received a mixed response and triggered an apology ‘domino’ effect?

In many ways, the apology from Hikaru Kimura, senior executive officer at Mitsubishi Materials Corporation, was a textbook example in how to apologise and protect your reputation. 

By offering a "most remorseful apology" and saying that Mitsubishi felt "a deep sense of ethical responsibility for a past tragedy" the Japanese executive both admitted fault and expressed shame.

There was no justification or attempt to shift the blame, typical of many perfunctory apologies.

But the time taken to make the apology – nearly 70 years since the end of the war, and six years since the Japanese government expressed contrition – has caused consternation. A fact only slightly negated by Mitsubishi’s Yukio Okamoto apologising for not apologising earlier.

However, limiting the apology to US POWs has understandably led to demands for apologies to POWs from other affected nations. 

Mitsubishi was perhaps naïve to think that the PR savvy Simon Wiesenthal Center was going to do anything other than generate global attention for an historic announcement made in New York. 

If you’re going to apologise for something, consider the full range of affected parties and their likely reaction before making a public statement. 

Mitsubishi also promised that nothing like this would ever happen again – a commitment to change is another key element of a sincere apology and attempts to draw a line under difficult issues. 
But two key elements make this situation much more challenging: 

First, Mitsubishi is facing a million-dollar compensation case from relatives of Chinese POWs forced to work in wartime Japan – its spokesman refused to discuss the lawsuit or state whether compensation would be given. 

Presumably this is to avoid accepting liability and to discourage additional claims - interestingly research suggests that people are less likely to file compensation claims once apologies have been made.

Second, this type of apology is very different to a failing product or service where it is relatively easy to identify the problem and provide redress – recalling vehicles, replacing software, providing refunds. 

Instead, the success or otherwise of Mitsubishi’s initiative is perhaps in other companies following its lead. Only then will they be able to fully draw a line under the issue.

Mitsubishi Materials Corporation has rightly received plaudits for becoming the first major Japanese company to apologise for using US POWs as slave labourers. 

In the short term, Mitsubishi may be forced to extend its apology to the descendants of other POWs forced to work during the war. 

However, it may also lead to a more positive domino effect by encouraging other Japanese companies to follow its lead. 

Simon Maule is director of Linstock Communications

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