Ishikawa Incident Illustrates Cultural Dichotomy

Photo: AFP/File, Yoshikazu Tsuno
Ryo Ishikawa, one of our favorite golfers, recently had an issue with his driving. It didn't happen on the golf course, and it has nothing to do with distance, in fact, at the 2011 Masters the Japanese superstar was ranked fifth in driving distance.

What happened to Ryo, was the kind of thing that happens to many 19-year-olds: He got into trouble for an infraction that took place behind the wheel.

To many of us... in the US and other western nations... it probably seems rather benign: the golf champion, who'll turn 20 in September, was cited for driving (unknowingly, it turns out) without a valid licence.  It seems the international driving licence Ishikawa recently obtained in the US was not legal in Japan, because the law there says he would have needed to be abroad for at least three full months to make it valid. Apparently the infraction was discovered when Ryo was spotted driving a silver Audi he'd won, to a local tournament. Neither Ryo nor his Dad were aware of the legal nuance.

Now here's where the cultural dichotomy part comes in: this is a big story in Japan. A story that came with a very profuse public apology... from the golfer himself, his father and his sponsors.  Yes, Ryo Ishikawa is a bona fide superstar in Japan, but were this to have happened to a US star... even the biggest, most role model-ish star... it would hardly have made the news. And when it did, the story would likely be told with a sheepish smile and be all about how it was an innocent mistake... not his/her fault.  There most probably wouldn't be an apology because in our culture apologizing equals an admission of guilt or personal responsibility.  In Japan, on the other hand, an apology is seen more as a gesture of humbleness and concern for others, than as an admission of personal wrongdoing. Apologizing, and expressing a commitment to do better, are therefore seen as basic courtesy.  Ryo made no excuses for what had happened, stating at a Narita airport news conference yesterday, “It’s my own carelessness. I’m very sorry for causing a trouble to my sponsors and golf fans with my fault."  There wasn't the slightest inference that the rule was silly... or should be reviewed.  In fact, the repentant golfer finished by saying, "I will devote myself every day to being more self-aware than ever as a professional golfer. I am sorry,"

Seen from this side of the world the reaction seems, to say the least, curious, as we're far more used to seeing our stars... and politicians, and corporate chieftains... evading rather than apologizing. The fact is, here in the US sports agents, reputation management consultants and corporate attorneys would likely discourage even a hint of contrition in public statements.  In Japan, assuming one's personal responsibility, is still highly valued.  This may make life more difficult for superstars, but many feel it helped the nation's population cope with the recent natural disasters.
Part of what the world finds so enchanting about Ryo Ishikawa is his soft-spoken, unpretentious reserve, and as he gets ready to compete in the US Open next week we wish him the best. We'll certainly be pulling for him next week at Congressional Country Club.