Almost every conversation in Japan, every encounter with someone, a chance meeting, a planned appointment, begins with the words sumi ma sen - a catchall phrase that literally means 'excuse me' but also serves many other purposes.
I've been fascinated by this since I arrived in Japan a few months ago. My Japanese friends tell me laughingly that this is nothing to worry about: the Japanese apologize a lot. One of them, something of a cynic, pointed me in the direction of a McDonald's: 'Look at the price list. It says cheeseburger, so many yen; hamburger, so many yen; smile, zero yen. For us, an apology is like a smile, it's free, and it means nothing.'
I'm not so sure. It's intriguing that Japan seems preoccupied with what I call 'a culture of apology'. But often apologies are not so easily given or indeed easy to give. For the person apologizing, and for the one to whom the apology is being offered, things are not so simple.
During my first week in Japan the newspapers were full of stories about a company that had knowingly sold substandard milk. The firm's customers were irate. Many had fallen ill. But the company found a unique way out of this problem: they employed freelance 'apologizers' - mostly housewives - who called up their customers and apologized. Of course, the customers did not know they weren't speaking to a company official and executives were spared the 'humiliation' of admitting responsibility.
Later, in Minamata on Kyushu Island, I met Shinobu and her mother Sakamoto. Shinobu became a victim of the dreaded 'Minamata disease' while still in her mother's womb. Her sister, Mayumi, also acquired the disease in the same way and lived only a few years. They came to be known as 'congenital patients' of the disease. More than 160 people have died of Minamata disease over the last 40 years - caused by the Chisso Company's discharge of untreated effluents containing organic mercury into Minamata Bay. Many thousands were affected.
Shinobu has become a fighter for Minamata patients. She knows that while Chisso agreed to pay compensation to many of the victims, both the company and the Japanese Government did their best not to accept responsibility.
'Just because they paid compensation,' she told me, 'that doesn't mean things are settled. They can't just claim everything is settled. As long as I am alive, how can they say everything is all right? Who will take responsibility for my life?' That, I think, is the issue: accepting responsibility. The Minamata victims fought hard to get Chisso to admit their responsibility and Chisso fought equally hard against this.
Every day in Japan I read about some company or the other, some executive or the other, admitting to a fraud, a defective product, to using somebody's picture without permission, or leading people to believe something that wasn't actually true. Newspapers carry pictures of top executives, their heads bent, abject, stepping down from their jobs. But it is hard to tell whether they're really apologizing or whether this is just a convenient way of deflecting the wrath of those at the receiving end of the frauds - and indeed of the apologies.
'Of course they don't mean to apologize,' says Yayori Matsui, a well-known activist. 'If they did, wouldn't the Government accept responsibility for sexual slavery, the forcible recruitment of "comfort women" during the war?' Women activists in Japan are angry that instead of apologizing for this war crime, and offering to pay compensation, the State has deflected responsibility by setting up the Asian Women's Fund, funded by private donations.
When apologies get mixed with money the issues get blurred. While the 'offenders' - usually large corporations or the State - think handing out money will solve the problem, the victims want something more. They want an admission of culpability, a declaration of intent to harm. This is perhaps the hardest thing to secure, since among the steps that follow from this is the one that is most feared - the demand for astronomical compensation rather than the smaller amounts that constitute 'sympathy money'. As Shinobu's mother, Sakamoto Fujie put it, the victims wanted the Chisso Company's response to reflect the 'needs and feelings of the victims'.
It's important though, that discussions on apologies and on admitting responsibility do at least take place. At home in India I have never heard a company executive or a politician, or anyone else in power, give even the merest hint of an apology for things ranging from cheating to cover ups and worse.
'Perhaps we Japanese apologize,' a friend tells me, 'or at least try to, because we believe we're all in some way accountable, that we all have a role to play in making the society we live in. It may sound like a cliché, but it could be true...'
And if that's so, well, I think that's not a bad place to start.
Urvashi Butalia is an Indian writer and publisher
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7