Reporting from Tokyo and Seoul — The president's bow, when it came at last, was a dip that lasted only a second.
Coming two weeks after his company began recalling cars by the millions, the short, formal dip, head cast down, suggested regret for causing so much trouble for his customers.
But Akio Toyoda, grandson of the founder of the Japanese automaker now battling to save its global image from the stain of safety problems, did not deliver the deeper, longer bow that some expected. Bend too low, hold the pose too long, and Toyoda might have found himself in sticky legal trouble, his ritual of apology construed as a sign that the company accepted its culpability in the mess over all those defects.
In a culture where saying sorry comes easily but can mean many things, the Japanese bow, a stiff, from-the- waist dip with arms held at the side, is often the better indicator of the sincerity of one's contrition.
The nation's ritual of corporate apology has ties to feudal times when samurai warriors committed seppuku, disemboweling themselves in atonement.
The most solemn 21st century bows are reserved to atone for fatalities, but there are signs that tradition may be giving way to the realities of globalization. Companies like Toyota face liability issues around the world, and there is a growing wariness that an apology in Japan might be construed as an admission of responsibility by a court in the West.
Still, it has become an expected act in any scandal. Toyoda is far from the first Japanese executive to summon the TV cameras for his bow to the nation. The high number of corporate scandals in recent years, from the sale of spoiled food products to fatal accidents involving trains and nuclear power plants, has seen a steady parade of top executives bowing before the cameras.
Several years ago, Katsuhiko Kawasoe, then-president of Mitsubishi Motors Corp, bowed to atone for his company's two-decades-long coverup of product defects that endangered motorists and led to fatalities. With news photographers in tow, he marched into the office of a government trade official and bent slowly forward for nearly a minute at an awkward, back-searing 45-degree angle.
It wasn't enough to save him. He was forced to resign and was eventually charged and found guilty of professional negligence, receiving a suspended sentence.
The ritualistic nature of apology leads some to question the sincerity of the act. Toyoda's bow as he began his news conference was perfunctory. Hands on the table, notes clutched in his fist, he looked like he was settling in to chair a meeting of underlings.
After a Japanese drug firm admitted in 1996 that several hemophiliacs had contracted HIV from its contaminated blood products, one victim's family complained that the company's contrition didn't come from the heart.
Within moments, six top company executives silently fell to their knees before the families, lowering their foreheads to the floor.
Critics say that some firms substitute meaningless gestures for real problem-solving.
"My somewhat cynical take on this bowing habit is that it's often a way to avoid taking real steps to deal with the underlying problem," says Robert Dujarric, director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies at Temple University Japan.
But outside Japan, some see an appeal in the concept of disgraced executives offering a public display of contrition. In widely quoted remarks last year after the U.S. government's multibillion dollar bailout of insurance giant AIG, Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) said he'd feel better about company executives "if they'd follow the Japanese model and come before the American people, and take that deep bow and say: 'I'm sorry.' "
Then, Grassley said, they should "either do one of two things: resign, or go commit suicide."
Masters is a freelance writer.