Uncomfortable Public Embarrassment

You don’t really know uncomfortable public embarrassment until Japanese business people have apologised to you. Seriously, it’s off-putting.

Let me tell you the tale…

I’m not sure how much detail to state, but I guess I do have to name the corporation and give at least a broad outline of the circumstances.

While I was working as a media contact for an African educational charity, I was approached by a reporter from NHK who wanted to interview a specific student on a timely topic. Normally this would be no problem, but the student in question needed to study for the British A-Level exams. Management at the charity had decided that to protect our students, we were enforcing a full media blackout until after the exam period (a number of students were local media celebrities).

As per our decision, which I fully endorsed, I denied the reporter the opportunity to interview the student. Somehow during our conversation the reporter learned when I’d be off-campus.

She showed up at our campus while I was away, convinced the guards I’d OK’d the interview (they’re not supposed to let anyone in unaccompanied, but she’s a small, polite Japanese woman who knew the right names to say…what harm could she do?) Having gotten past the guards, she convinced reception to contact the principal, and convinced the principal (again, dropping my name often) that I had approved this.

The principal pulled the student out of class for the interview. Now, there was nothing wrong with the interview content, per se. But we hadn’t approved it, and no adult was there to protect the student’s interests (also part of our protocols) had anything arisen.

When I arrived the next day, reception told me about the interview (she found it weird that I wasn’t present), and shit hit the fan in all directions. I got in trouble, the receptionist got in trouble, the principal got in trouble, and a guard got fired.

I was livid. I called reporter’s manager at NHK’s Johannesburg bureau and laid into him about what she’d done. He claimed no knowledge, apologized and hung up.

The next day, the guards call me, there’s three people from NHK at the gate wanting to see me. It was the reporter, her editor, and the manager. He’d brought the other two to force them to apologize to me and the receptionist (the principal chose not to participate, damn her.)

So we stood there while each of the NHK people, in frank from lowest to highest, took turns apologising and bowing to us, ending with the manager’s apology and about two minutes of all three bowing repeatedly in unison until the manager decided that they’d bowed enough.

Being the recipient of the bowing was awkward at first, but the longer it went on, the more it transitioned to embarrassing. Two minutes is a long time to stand silently while people bow to you. Perhaps we were supposed to ask them to stop? I don’t know. It’s not my culture.

Towards the end, it almost felt like the manager kept bowing to punish us as much as his staff.

When they finally departed, the manager gave us three gift bags (the guards didn’t factor into their apology), each containing a scarf and a mouse pad, each branded NHK. But honestly, the gifts themselves felt a little insulting in the sense of being low value trinkets. I didn’t know this was going to happen, but once it did, I’d have preferred no gift to a low-value “now-go-away” gift.

A year or so later I had another reporter from NHK call about interviewing our founder. That reporter started the call by apologising again for the previous reporter (so the incident must be in their CRM) and telling me that she’d gone back to Japan. And yes, we did do the second interview. It was a live TV panel about entrepreneurism in Africa and went quite well.

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