A former boss of mine sometimes liked to say that “it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission.” He was a lawyer, of course.
In Japanese, the distinction is not quite as clear, as the usual word for both acts is the verb yurusu. Traditionally, though, there are different kanji characters for the two senses of the word. The usual kanji you see in Japanese nowadays, “許す,” originally only referred to permission (i.e., before the fact); by some accounts, the proper kanji to use for forgiveness (i.e., after the fact) is the more archaic “赦す.”
Not many people bother with the distinction nowadays (see this little social media experiment) and Microsoft’s Japanese input method editor helpfully suggests that the latter kanji is not commonly used in this sense (“常用外”); although it is one of the Joyo Kanji learned in compulsory education, schoolchildren generally only learn its usage in Chinese-derived compounds like 赦免 (shamen) and 恩赦 (onsha), both of which are used to refer to “pardons” of particular individuals and “amnesty” regarding a particular offense.
赦, the forgiveness kanji, [unsurprisingly] comes from China. It was imported to Japan in the late 600s AD. Before this time, there was no concept of human-granted amnesty or pardons in Japan (see this Japanese Wikipedia article), and even under the common-law system introduced in Japan around that time, amnesty was at the imperial court’s discretion and limited to lesser offenses. The system was formalized in the 1700s under the Tokugawa shogunate; under this system, various pardons and amnesties were handed down through the court bureaucracy at the order of the shogun, often at seemingly auspicious times such as the enthronement of a new emperor. The emperor regained control over the amnesty/pardon process under the Meiji Constitution of 1889, and still conducts the final seal of approval under the modern constitution, although the actual decision is now made by the cabinet.
Today, the most avid users of the “forgiveness” kanji as a verb are Christians, who are used to the extensive discussion of forgiveness in the Bible, where the old kanji 赦す is used in most common translations. A simple Google search for the term mostly turns up Christian-related web pages.
It was through Christians that I found out about “the other kanji for yurusu.” Before getting married earlier this year, I had been going to weekly “marriage classes” with the future Mrs. Jones at a Catholic church in Tokyo (more on this here), and one of the main points of discussion was the great importance of forgiveness in a marital relationship.
This perspective is by no means limited to Christians: the broader secular Japanese society (as well as most rational human beings) also acknowledges that one has to “forgive and forget” if they want to survive a lifelong marriage with someone. Long-time readers of this blog may even remember that “I’m sorry” is as important as “I love you” in the estimation of the “National Husbands’ Advisory Association.” Forgiveness is a common theme in the Abrahamic religions as well as in Buddhism (English Wikipedia has a pretty good round-up), but the Buddhist perspective seems to place greater emphasis on simply detaching completely from the mundane world, as opposed to taking things seriously but channeling the heart to forgive them anyway. That said, Japanese people are generally not Buddhist until someone dies, which might explain how many marriages here end up absolutely wrecked (even if not quite in a state of divorce).
Anyway, to my predominantly non-Catholic Japanese classmates, most of whom just wanted to get married in the nice church (theology be damned) but were polite enough to humor the clergy, the distinction between 赦す and 許す was harder to understand, let alone justify. One of my more-or-less-atheist Japanese co-workers took a look at the writeups on forgiveness provided to my Marriage 101 class, and said “I could never let my husband think he’ll be forgiven for everything… but otherwise it sounds like a good idea.”
I guess life wouldn’t be interesting if it were so easy.