X Thinking in Their Own Way (1) by YAMAGISHI, K.

   The least-spoken words in the English language are: 'I'm terribly sorry, it's entirely my fault.' No one ever accepts the blame when something goes wrong. It has always been Someone Else's Fault and it will always be Someone Else's Fault. Christopher Ward in his How to Complain (Pan Books, 1979, pp. 161-3) points this out.
   I think this is true. I also think that people from English-speaking countries won't say anything, won't do anything, before they know where they stand legally. This trait, if I may call it that way, may have been born as wisdom for living. People living in a racially mixed country or nation must have learned that way of defending themselves by experience through their everyday lives. So, saying that they are (terribly / awfully) sorry nearly always means that they must take the responsibility.
   In the case of the Japanese, on the other hand, the reverse is true. They would say "Makotoni mooshiwake arimasen. (=I'm terribly sorry.)" or "Watakushino ochidodesu. (=It's entirely my fault.)" more often or much less hesitantly than English-speaking people. They know quite well that saying such a thing helps everything go smoothly.
   So, if English-speaking people don't understand this Japanese tendency, they might naturally question why Japanese people use "sumimasen (=I'm sorry.)" so freely or so easily.
   The thing is that English-speaking people, in general, take this phrase seriously at its face value and the Japanese take it as a sort of lubricating oil which helps reduce the fiction between people.

Thinking in their own way

   Come to think of it, a people or a race tends to behave or think according to their own cultural patterns or social codes. When a Japanese person expects something from a foreigner, for example, his or her expectation is usually based on his or her experiences in his or her own culture or society.
One example will tell us of a cultural difference. When a Japanese man or woman runs into a person who had sent him or her a gift a week or two ago, he or she will most probably say "Senjitsuwa kekkoona monowo arigatoo gozaimashita. (=Literally, Thank you very much for the wonderful gift the other day.)" The receiver mustn't forget to thank the sender. English-speaking people thank the sender, too, saying something like "Thank you very much for the wonderful gift. I love it." Some other people might add, "I appreciate your thoughtfulness." However,, English-speaking people wouldn't express their gratitude for a gift half a year or so later.

   The Japanese would do that, saying something like "Itsuzoyawa [Sonosetsuwa] arigatoo gozaimashita." You could possibly translate these Japanese words into, say, "Thank you very much for the gift you sent me some time back. / Thank you very much for the gift you sent me at that time."

How far back do you remember?

   What's the difference between the two cultures, then? It's "retrospectiveness." In the Japanese culture, "gratitude" applies to the past far more strongly than in the Western culture. The longer the Japanese remember the favor they received in the past, the better (although it's not always true today as it used to be).
   In the Western culture, since people don't have such a stringent gift-giving policy as in Japan, they don't have many occasions to express their gratitudes.
   In her well-known book The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (1946), Ruth Benedict, the American anthropologist, writes as follows:

   In the English language we used to talk about being ‘heirs of the ages.’ Two wars and a vast economic crisis have diminished somewhat the self-confidence it used to bespeak but this shift has certainly not increased our sense of indebtedness to the past. Oriental nations turn the coin to the other side: they are debtors to the ages. Much of what Westerners name ancestor worship is not truly worship and not wholly directed towards ancestors: it is a ritual avowal of man's great indebtedness to all that has gone before. Moreover, he is indebted not only to the past; every day-by-day contact with other people increases his indebtedness in the present. From this debt his daily decisions and actions must spring. (Chap. 5)

   This description is basically true even today. The Japanese recipient of a gift has to pay back the favor of the gift given with the stringency, and so, when he or she has returned the favor, he or she may not repeat thanking the sender any longer. Benedict say further:

   We think their gift giving is fantastic too, when twice a year every household wraps up something in ceremonious fashion as return on a gift received six months earlier, or when the family of one's maidservant brings gifts through the year as a return on the favor of hiring her. (Chap. 7)

   Although Japanese life style has changed a lot and most Japanese families don't hire maidservants any more, they do have such a stringent gift-giving policy and thank someone for the past or "the other day." English-speaking people can only thank someone for "what he or she did," not "the other day."
   Christmas and New Year's greeting cards show another difference between the two cultures (British, America, and other English-speaking people don't send New Year's cards, since in the Christmas card there is always a required message). In English-speaking countries, people send a Christmas card with words such as "Merry Christmas and A Happy New year." These words tell us that in English-speaking countries it is the commonest to wish for "the future," and not for the "past."
   In Japan, on the contrary, people must refer to the past as well as to the future. So, we write a New year's card with words such as "Kyuunenchuuwa iroiroto osewani narimashita. Honnenmo kureguremo yoroshiku onegai itashimasu." (Literally, I appreciate your kindness throughout the past year. I humbly ask your continued favor this year.) This kind of reference to the past is not made in Western culture, without doubt.