Shingo's Apology: The Necessary Empty Gesture


Here is Katori Shingo’s tearful apology on behalf of fellow SMAP member Kusanagi Tsuyoshi, who was arrested last week for indecent exposure after being found by police drunk and naked in a Tokyo park.

Shingo’s performance is, if anything, enhanced by contrition. The lump in the throat, the stuttering, the long pauses, the repeated phrases (“SMAP ni… SMAP ni… SMAP ni…“), the downcast eyes: all combine to great effect. The Youtube comments (now deleted), too, were mostly sincere and supportive, like the encouraging words of an uncle at an unenthusiastic nephew’s Bar Mitzva: “just go through the motions, it’ll all be over soon.”

The obvious question is, what prompted the surrogate apology? Could he really have been so torn up by all this? Is he acting out of concern for the disrupted well-being of fans? For the reputation of his ichiban shin’yū (“#1 best friend”) Tsuyoshi, or his own hide, implicated by association?

But most viewers were indifferent about the whole affair, and despite the few canceled contracts, Shingo knows that neither of their careers is in any jeopardy; in fact, the incident may only increase their celebrity. And so neither fears of profit loss nor concern for the mental health of fans can be said to be the primary cause. It’s clear that something deeper is at work here. Even if the immediate explanation is simply that industry powers that be thrust him onstage to minimize damage, the question of why they care when nobody else does remains.

In making this apology, Shingo was, to borrow Heidegger’s phrase, simply “doing what one does, as one does,” that is, behaving in a typical way that conforms to the prejudices of the group. The apology itself is meaningless — in fact, impractical — as there were no victims in the first place, no amends to be made. It seems unlikely that the authors of the bland, supportive comments of the audience on YouTube had ever been upset or angered by the affair. Rather, it is as if the ritual itself demands to be performed, and that not performing it would be a transgression far greater than the original transgression of running around in the buff.

Much can be said about all this — about the custom of the shazai kaiken (“apology conference”), the psychological dynamics of shame, the unwritten rules of social interaction, the tacit understanding between viewer and actor, apologist and apologee, etc. However, not being qualified to comment, I thought I’d instead quote from philosopher-critic Slavoj Žižek, who in a recent interview made the following remarks:

What I see in Japan — and maybe this is my own myth — is that behind all these notions of politeness, snobbism etc., the Japanese are well aware that something which may appear superficial and unnecessary, in fact has a much deeper structural function. A Western approach would be: who needs this? But a totally ridiculous thing might, at a deeper level, play a stabilizing function we are not aware of. […]

The usual cliché now is that Japan is the ultimate civilization of shame. What I despise in America is the studio actors’ logic, as if there is something good about self-expression: do not be oppressed, open yourself up, even if you shout and kick the others, everything in order to express and liberate yourself. This is a stupid idea — that behind the mask there is some truth. In Japan, even if something is merely an appearance, politeness is not simply insincere. […] Surfaces do matter. If you disturb the surfaces you may lose a lot more than you accounted for. You shouldn’t play with rituals. Masks are never simply mere masks. Perhaps that’s why Brecht became close to Japan. He also liked this notion that there is nothing really liberating in this typical Western gesture of removing the masks and showing the true face. What you discover is something absolutely disgusting. Let’s maintain the appearances. (European Graduate School website)

May 5, 2009

Ryan Morrison grew up in Phoenix, Arizona and went to school in California. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of Tokyo. His blog is Beholdmyswarthyface.

16 Responses

  1. lovegeek Blog » Blog Archive » ‘What’s wrong with being naked?’ Says:

    […] Reading through one of my favourite Japanese culture blogs, Neojaponisme, I found great post on The Necessary Empty Gesture of public apologies in Japan. This time in relation to fellow SMAP member Shingo’s apology on […]

  2. devin Says:

    The Zizek quote at the end came as no surprise, since the whole post really seems to be channeling him. The posing of an “obvious question,” the quote from Heidegger, the wonderful pithy title “necessary empty gesture” all smack of Slavoj…I applaud you.

  3. Mabel Callahan Says:

    Ryan, that was really well done!

    I want to get one of these shirts, too:

    And, you are right, he is hardly disgraced. They will make money on it for sure. I had never seen that quote before by Zizek and was glad to read it.

  4. Matt TREYVAUD Says:

    I see Shingo’s apology and the audience response as a kind of extreme method acting, on both sides. The emotions are real even if the stimulus of “fans who feel genuinely let down” is only hypothetical.

    And is this not a microcosm of the entire world, in which each individual imagines themselves an isolated unit, projects thoughts and feelings onto perceived external forces, and “reacts” to those projections as if they were empirical measurements? (Śāriputra?)

  5. Leonardo Boiko Says:

    The problem with removing the mask to expose your real self is that the real self is but another mask (cliché, I know). So in the end you’re just switching a mask for an uglier one.

  6. Peony Says:

    Hi Ryan,

    I agree with Mabel– this was really well done! Short and to the point. And, like Devin said, from the title to the Heidegger quote to the quote at the end: Bravo.

    I am not sure at all what Matt meant by his extreme method acting comment– if you see this, Matt, maybe you can enlighten me as that left me somewhat puzzled.

    I tend to agree with Ryan I guess that there was a ritual that needed to be performed. Hey, if we were in LA, it would just be a different ritual, right? Talk Show Hell…. God forbid, maybe even a reality TV show… in any event, rather than a ritual apology we would get ritual psycho-analysis of his emotional issues..

    Anyway: I want a T-shirt and I applaud you too, Ryan

  7. Dr. Nabil al-Tasnimi Says:

    Ryan: If this were a paper for one of my graduate classes, you’d get a B-, because you offer no sufficient explanation to the article’s central question, “what prompted the apology?”

    That said, I admit that this is a rather difficult problem to solve, and that doing so would require much more space than is allotted here.

    Leonardo: You’ve summed Ryan’s argument up nicely. And just because something is a cliché doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

    And Matt: Your two points– about method acting and Śāriputra– are intruiging, but I’m not sure I understand completely. Method actors are aware that they are acting; but does Shingo’s audience (and Shingo himself, for that matter) share this same awareness? Please elaborate.

  8. Ryan Shaldjian Morrison Says:

    Assuming you’re not mocking me, thanks. (Are you mocking me?)

    I hope the article didn’t smack too much of Slavoj.

  9. Adamu Says:

    This was a good article in that generally Westerners DO need to be told about this cultural difference, but even then it is usually useless.

    But in the end I don’t accept that these apologies have no real meaning. First, the idea that nobody cared at that point is I think factually wrong. Katori and Kusanagi were not on auto-pilot – like all other human beings, their actions are a response to real life considerations.

    Second, the real life consideration in this case is that a lack of proper shows of contrition has been devastating to scandalized companies/public figures in the past. In this case as well, the reaction to this incident by SMAP and others most definitely held the key to whether Kusanagi and the rest could continue as performers. Sure, the odds were stacked in their favor esp. considering their dominant position in the market and the sheer nothingness of the incident itself. But if Johnny’s had kept a media firewall and just ignored the public then the media could have had a field day of schadenfreude and gossip as to why they are being so secretive.

    There is definitely an element of show and surface appearance-keeping. That is an important and the most striking feature of these public apologies, and to the extent that Westerners misunderstand and mock it, that’s to their detriment. But it does not follow that the apologies themselves have no meaning, even if the supposed target of the apology doesn’t need it.

    Also, I don’t think that the apology was impractical at all. Just by virtue of the immense media firestorm, Kusanagi’s action do merit the label meiwaku/nuisance. The story occupied the headlines for days and the TV stations really did have to engage in the Stalin-esque work of erasing him from existence at least until his status was confirmed.

    While you are right about the ritual element of these apologies, they are nevertheless of the utmost importance, both for how the media will react if you don’t do it or screw it up, AND for how people will think of you in reaction to the media’s reaction. I think that the Semba Kiccho lady’s image as a money-grubbing and controlling woman only grew after she was caught whispering in the ear of the ostensible head of the company and telling him what to say. So in that sense the apology scene is not just some idealized ritual – it influences the real-life image and character of those involved.

    So in the end the best part of the Kusanagi apology (far more important than Shingo’s by my reckoning) succeeded because a) the deed wasn’t that bad to begin with, and b) his apology was performed extremely well. In the press conference he struck the difficult balance of showing the appropriate level of contrition while at the same time being honest about what happened.

    Speaking of ritual apologies, remember that guy who lied to Oprah about his memoirs? He had to come back on her show and get a thorough tongue-lashing.

  10. Matt TREYVAUD Says:

    I see from looking at Wikipedia that I have been laboring under a common misconception about the Method. Calling it “acting” in the theatrical sense also muddies the waters by begging the question of artifice right from the start. So let me abandon that analogy and try again:

    Masks and rituals are different things. Masks conceal the “truth”, but rituals create a new “truth” that is independent of the context in which the ritual is performed. In this general sense, everything we do is a ritual in some sense or another. When we label something a ritual, what we generally mean is a ritual that we don’t participate in (and therefore are not moved by, or even find ridiculous).

    So to the extent that Shingo’s role in this whole business interests us, it is because he is playing a role we find surprising. When we try to empathize with him, we find that the feelings we would expect to feel in his position would not lead us to perform the ritual the way he is performing it. We therefore seek an explanation and begin gathering hypotheses.

    But we have to remember that this is all in our head. We don’t know what Shingo’s “real” feelings are, and we never will; to think otherwise is to flatter ourselves to a truly embarrassing extent. Adamu’s comment above points out many factors that we might be overlooking even if our general premises are granted, but even beyond that, the context of Shingo’s ritual includes many superrituals in which, generally speaking, people who read this site are not participants (however well we might understand them in theory): SMAP fandom, mainstream celebrity in modern Japan, middle-upper-class Tokyocentric ethics, etc. The idea that a group of people exists that was hurt by Kusanagi’s actions but would be mollified by an apology is emergent from all of these rituals. Whether these people exist or not is irrelevant.

    Thus, how Shingo really feels — what actual hormones and chemicals are swirling around inside him, and what electrical activity they are causing in his nervous and lymphic system — is not only unknowable, it’s beside the point. What matters is the emotional bond with his audience as mediated by the ritual itself. (All of this is what I meant by “method acting.”)

    (Note: I’m not arguing that it’s never relevant or possible to explore gaps between honne and tatemae [in any culture] — just that “artifice/duplicity vs sincerity” is a less useful frame than “quo vadis?” If a ritual is unjust and benefits one group at the expense of another, the extent to which players identify with their roles does not temper the injustice.)

    My second point: In our personal lives, too, we don’t ever really know what another person is thinking or feeling, just how they are acting. But we build mental models of each other anyway, and react intellectually and emotionally to these models as if they were unmediated reality rather than an approximation built with the ritual tools we happen to have to hand.

  11. still alive, please! « Néojyanisme Says:

    […] Tsuyoshi Kusanagi was found drunk, howling and naked in a park, neojaponisme later found drunk, howling and with it’s knickers in a twist over Shingo Katori’s weepy apology. Your writer, who should be studying for her own law […]

  12. Ryan Shaldjian Morrison Says:


    Thanks for the comments. I agree with most of what you’ve said. I should’ve been clearer: I didn’t mean to imply that the apology was meaningless. Here’s a list:

    1. Meaningful: Yes. (Just what kind of meaning, I’ll let the semioticians out there decipher.)

    2. Functional: Yes, as Adamu pointed out.

    3. Ritualistic: Yes.

    4. Important: Yes, as a sort of show trial, which offers the possibility for redemption and reentrance into the community.

    5. Practical: Yes. (However, I still think it’s “impractical” in the sense that the apology as directed to fans was not necessary. But, knowing nothing about SMAP, their fans, their music, J Pop in general, I could be very wrong.)

    6. Disingenuous: Yes.

    My two points: a) an act can be practical, ritualistic, functional, meaningful, and disingenuous all at the same time, and b) since, as Gadamer put it, language speaks us before we speak it, all verbal utterances— and not only those of the Japanese— are to varying degrees ritualistic. What is unique, if anything, about the Japanese is their seemingly heightened awareness of this, and their skepticism toward the very notion of “de-masking.”

    And thanks for pointing out the Senba Kiccho apology. I had forgotten about that. Here’s a comedy sketch about it:

    And Matt, thanks for the clarification. It seems we’re getting into some serious epistemology here. You’ve summed up nicely what I was trying to get it:

    “Thus, how Shingo really feels — what actual hormones and chemicals are swirling around inside him, and what electrical activity they are causing in his nervous and lymphic system — is not only unknowable, it’s beside the point. What matters is the emotional bond with his audience as mediated by the ritual itself.”

  13. Aceface Says:

    And 7.Prejudice:Yes.
    Gaijins never take Japanese apologies at face value and start postmortem as soon as the statements were made,and by doing so keep the wounds remain wide open.

    We need some words from Zizek on this.

  14. Adamu Says:

    At the risk of getting too out there, your comment makes me wonder if in your eyes gaijin observation can ever be appropriate – at least in this case, I see this dissection more an attempt to understand and actually empathize more than as a sort of backhanded criticism/attack. I mean, wasn’t part of this piece about letting Westerners know they should question their own assumptions about openness and ritual before criticizing Japan?

    In this case the gaijins aren’t even a party to this incident at all and so there are no wounds to leave open, but I assume you are referring to the more perennial wartime issues. Still, maybe after reading this a future “Washington Japan policy” type will have an easier time understanding good faith gestures from Japan?

  15. Aceface Says:

    “At the risk of getting too out there, your comment makes me wonder if in your eyes gaijin observation can ever be appropriate”

    This is probably my first-ever post on writings of Ryan.Meaning I have nothing against HIS observation,mostly.
    (But I understand your feeling of being victimized because it was nobody but you who allowed me to take on your numerous posts in the last three years,of which I appreciate.)

    “In this case the gaijins aren’t even a party to this incident at all and so there are no wounds to leave open”

    Oh,no.You have every right to do as you please.
    You see,I love fishing.But I have nothing against fishes.

    “1. Meaningful: Yes. (Just what kind of meaning, I’ll let the semioticians out there decipher.)”

    Like he is binded to multiple contracts and there was urgent need for him to get back in line and to do so,somekind of gesture was in need desperately?

    “3. Ritualistic: Yes.”

    Me thinks any kind of formal apology in public is ritualistic in away,since that’s what formality is all about.

    “5. Practical: Yes. (However, I still think it’s “impractical” in the sense that the apology as directed to fans was not necessary. But, knowing nothing about SMAP, their fans, their music, J Pop in general, I could be very wrong.)

    6. Disingenuous: Yes.”

    I know I’m nitpicking here.But if you think the apology was unnecessary,how can the very same apology be disingenuous at the same time?

    I walked to the nearby bookshop this afternoon only to get a copy of人権と国家(集英社新書),an interview of Zizek by then 18 years old Japanese girl,so I can write down the exact quote of what Zizek had said on Japanese vending machines that sells used highschool girl’s underwear.(I peeked this in the book shop when it came out.However the memory is fading,and I wanted to be more accurate,It’s now on it’s way via
    So,I suspend further comment on Zizek until I’ll read the book through,but only the impression I’ve got that he is sort of a combination between Momus and JAPUNDIT on Japan understanding.

  16. Slavoj Žižek on Japan « It’ll All End In Tears Says:

    […] is a nice little piece in Neojapanisme about the empty meaning of shazai kaiken (apology conferences) in Japanese culture. […]