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.
6 thoughts on “Forgiveness vs. permission”
A native Japanese academic one asked me about the phrase “forgive and forget”. After explaining it, I said, cynically, that people may forgive but they find it harder to forget. After mulling it over for a bit he replied that Japanese often forget but don’t forgive. We were both being a bit glib but I had an inkling of what he might be getting at. Looking at corporate behaviour, you frequently come across cases where there is an unforgiving prejudice about something derived from an experience that no-one even remembers any more.
First rule of happy marriages – when your wife does something wrong, apologize to her.
Nice read. Thanks.
This seems to explain aspects of my relationship with a Japanese woman… yikes! And it’s not encouraging!
Also yeah great read thanks.
Forgiving is definitely important, but if one acts this or that way because he/she knows that will be forgiven, then it is not going to work…
Forgiving on one side means some kind of repentance on the other side. 反省 is actually used a lot in those cases, isn’t it?
As always, balance is important.
Anyway, nice little analysis. Another good bit of knowledge learned!
The irony to me here is that the old word for “the woman you are planning to marry” is iinazuke, written 許嫁 (permission to marry). Permission is easy to achieve with credentials, but forgiveness is usually only achieved through action, namely mercy and understanding…
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