Culture and Contrition: Apology in Dispute Resolution in Japan and North America

Guest lecture by Annalise Acorn, Faculty of Law, University of Alberta

Professor Annalise Acorn will visit the Department of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies on 26 August to give a guest lecture entitled "Culture and Contrition: Apology in Dispute Resolution in Japan and North America". 

Professor Annalise Acorn is the author of Compulsory Compassion: A Critique of Restorative Justice (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2004). She is presently an H.L.A. Hart Fellow at the Oxford Centre for Ethics and Legal Philosophy, University College, Oxford. She has been a Visiting Professor at University of Michigan Law School, University of Siena Department of Economic Law, and University of Hawaii Richardson School of Law. She is a frequent visitor at the Einstein Forum in Potsdam, Germany.

Professor Acorn's main area of research is the theory of emotions in the context of conflict and justice. She has published numerous articles in journals such as The Oxford Journal of Legal Studies, Osgoode Hall Law Journal, Valparaiso Law Review, and the UCLA Women's Law Journal. In 1998-99 she was the president of the Canadian Association of Law Teachers. In the same year she was a McCalla Research Professor. 


Many North American legal scholars condemn their own systems for encouraging costly and drawn out litigation; discouraging wrongdoers from taking responsibility for their actions; heightening hatred between parties to a dispute; and reducing all human values to dollars signs and damage awards. These critics of the North American system often look to Japan as a superior culture in which apology - not litigation - is the primary method of dispute resolution. They see Japanese culture as having a more sophisticated sense of concern and respect for the preservation of peaceful relationships. In this paper I probe some of the differences between Japanese and Western understandings of apology and responsibility in dispute resolution. Is the Western perception that disputes are satisfactorily resolved in Japan through apology and reconciliation accurate? Are there any drawbacks to apology as a method of dispute resolution? Is the meaning of an apology the same in Japanese and Western cultures? Could Japanese practices of apology be transplanted in Western legal contexts effectively given the significant differences in the cultures? How do existing power relations between the parties affect the politics of apology as a method of dispute resolution?

In considering these questions I raise some criticisms of apologies as methods of resolving disputes. Contrary to many of the North American scholars I suggest that apologies as means of dispute resolution are problematic especially as they can disadvantage the person who has been wronged and can reinforce abusive relationships. Although some of my examples will be drawn from the litigation context many will also be drawn from the political arena. By using political examples I hope to open up a general conceptual discussion about the role of apology and to raise questions about the appropriate role of apologies is in the legal arena.