Second Best in the World, but Still Saying Sorry
TOKYO – Kenichiro Fumita was crying so hard he could barely pronounce the words.
“I wanted to give my gratitude to the people involved and to the volunteers who are running the Olympics during this difficult time,” said Mr Fumita, a Greco-Roman wrestler, between sobs after finishing his last fight at the Games this week.
“I ended up with this shameful result,” he said, shaking his head abjectly. “I am really sorry.”
Mr. Fumita, 25, had just won a silver medal.
In what became a familiar – and at times heart-wrenching – sight during the Tokyo Olympics, many Japanese athletes cried in post-competition interviews, apologizing for anything below gold. Even some who had won a medal, like Mr Fumita, lamented that they had let down their team, their supporters, even their country.
After the Japanese judo team won silver against France, 25-year-old Shoichiro Mukai also apologized. “I wanted to resist a bit more,” he said. “And I’m so sorry for everyone on the team.”
Apologizing for being the second best in the world would seem to reflect an absurdly ruthless measure of success. But for those athletes who compete in their home countries, the emotionally charged displays of repentance – which often follow pointed questions from the Japanese news media – can represent a complex mix of regret, gratitude, obligation and humility.
“If you don’t apologize for just getting the money, you could be criticized,” said Takuya Yamazaki, a sports lawyer who represents players’ unions in Japan.
From a young age, Japanese athletes “aren’t really supposed to think like they’re playing sports for themselves,” Yamazaki said. “Especially in childhood, there are expectations of adults, teachers, parents or other elderly people. So it’s kind of a deeply ingrained mentality.
Expectations placed on athletes were compounded by the coronavirus pandemic, which made the Olympics deeply unpopular with the Japanese public before events began. Many may feel more pressure than usual to hand out medals to justify hosting the Games, as anxiety grows over the increase in coronavirus cases in Japan. Athletes who failed to do so offered outpourings of regret.
“I’m sick of myself,” said Kai Harada, a sport climber, wiping his eyes vigorously in an interview after failing to advance to the final. Takeru Kitazono, a gymnast who finished sixth on high bar, choked back tears as he spoke of his supporters. “I wanted to return my gratitude for my performance,” he said. “But I couldn’t.”
Naomi Osaka, in a statement following her elimination in the third round of women’s singles tennis, said she was proud to represent Japan, but added, “I’m sorry I couldn’t meet people’s expectations.”
In some ways, these athletes offered an extreme form of excuses that are daily social lubricants in Japanese culture.
Upon entering someone’s house, a visitor literally apologizes. Workers who go on vacation apologize for overloading their colleagues, while drivers express deep regret if a train is a minute late or even a few seconds early. Usually, these apologies are a matter of convention rather than a statement of responsibility.
Sometimes the mea culpas ring hollow. Business leaders and politicians often bow deeply to press cameras to apologize for this corporate scandal or political mischief. For the most part, few consequences follow.
Former Tokyo Olympic Organizing Committee chairman Yoshiro Mori initially tried to use such excuses to avoid resigning after making sexist comments. But a loud social media campaign helped topple him.
People who study Japanese culture say that athletes’ apologies, even in the face of victory, stem from an instinct cultivated since childhood.
“Americans are very good at finding reasons why you are good even if you fail,” said Shinobu Kitayama, a social psychologist at the University of Michigan. But in Japan, he said, “even if you are successful, you have to apologize.”
Apologies are also likely to be recognized as tacit expressions of gratitude, said Joy Hendry, anthropologist and author of Understanding Japanese Society. “I expect them to feel they have to apologize for not doing their best” to those who trained or supported them financially, Ms. Hendry said.
Mr Fumita, the wrestler, may also have felt the pressure to please his father, a well-known wrestling trainer. In an interview with NHK, the public broadcaster, Mr Fumita said he was afraid to answer a call after his silver medal. “I couldn’t pick up the phone,” he said. “I just didn’t know what to say to my dad. “
Athletes also know that apart from the number of medals, the Japanese public cannot enjoy the benefits of being an Olympic host, as spectators are prohibited from entering the venues.
The absence of supporters was palpable on Tuesday night at a nearly empty stadium in Saitama, a suburb of Tokyo, during the semi-final of the men’s soccer match between Japan and Spain. Nearly 64,000 seats were vacant as loudspeakers exploded into cheers and applause recorded on the pitch.
After Japan’s loss in the dying minutes of extra time, 24-year-old midfielder Yuki Soma paid tribute to those who couldn’t be there. “By winning a medal at all costs, I would like to energize Japan and make them smile,” he said at a post-match press conference, eyes downcast. Bronze is still within reach for Japan as they face Mexico on Friday.
Of course, it’s not just the Japanese Olympians who are expressing bitter disappointment after missing the gold. Chinese Liao Qiuyun openly cried after winning silver in weightlifting last week. After the U.S. women’s soccer team lost to Canada on Monday night in the semi-finals, team member Carli Lloyd crouched down on the pitch, clenching her head in her hands.
But in a post-game interview, she didn’t apologize. “I was just gutted,” Ms. Lloyd said, adding, “We are giving up so much, and you want to win.”
When Simone Biles retired from both the team gymnastics competition and the individual all-around, she explained that she wanted to protect her own mental and physical health.
The urge to apologize may stem in part from the harsh style of training found in some sports in Japan, said Katrin Jumiko Leitner, associate professor of sports management and wellness at Rikkyo University in Saitama. When she arrived in Japan to train in judo, she said, she was shocked by the coaches’ aggressive language. “I thought to myself that if this was the way to become an Olympic champion, I didn’t want to be an Olympic champion,” she said. “They didn’t treat athletes like human beings.”
Some Japanese athletes have faced public criticism for not showing sufficient humility. Yuko Arimori, a marathon runner who won silver in Barcelona in 1992 and bronze in Atlanta in 1996, has been accused of narcissism by some in the Japanese media after saying in Atlanta that she was proud of herself.
Ms. Arimori understands why athletes continue to apologize, given that they can convey a feeling of gratitude.
But “I think the fans know that the athletes have worked hard enough,” added Arimori. “So there is no need to apologize.”
Makiko Inoue and Hikari Hida contributed reports.