Kiri Sute Gomen

Posted on Thursday, March 03, 2011, under ,

is a Japanese expression, nowadays rather rarely used, which roughly translates as ‘I apologize in advance for this’ or, more loosely, ‘Mistakes were made’, indicating a sort of mock apology for something we have done which caused grievance to others, yet an expression devoid of a genuine feeling of self-reproach. The non-apology apology.

Wish I knew of this phrase a few weeks back when two traffic wardens stopped me on scooter for taking an illegal turn. Still, I did manage to talk them into letting me off the hook. Don’t ask me how. Spent almost half hour on the street talking and bullshitting, like ‘Japanese traffic rules are different from UK’ and such nonsense. If I’d known the phrase I am sure I would’ve used it. Not as effectively though as this piece of declamation by a humorist Bruce McCall, in a 2001 New York Times piece entitled "The Perfect Non-apology Apology":

‘Nobody is sorrier than me that the police officer had to spend his valuable time writing out a parking ticket on my car. Though from my personal standpoint I know for a certainty that the meter had not yet expired, please accept my expression of deep regret at this unfortunate incident.’

The above is so much in tune with Japanese, especially the overpolite Japanese used in formal situations (I don’t mean to imply Japanese are insincere though). Here is the one who indeed WAS insincere:

‘Kiri sute gomen’ actually goes back to the samurai times (literally: kiru = cut; suteru = throw  away, abandon; gomen = pardon). It would be uttered by a member of the samurai caste, in situations whereby certain harm, injury or a violation of honour had been done to him by a member of a lower caste (farmers, artisans, merchants). Such situation often called for an immediate retribution by the offended party, samurai that is, the utterance of the phrase accompanying a blow by the sword. Thus in its original connotation ‘kirisute gomen’ meant ‘authorization to cut and abandon (the victim’s body)’. A samurai had the ‘right to strike’ with his katana anyone of the lower class who compromised the code of honour or who behaved in a disrespectful manner, such as mistreating the weak or the sick.
In one of well known incident, a commoner bumped into a samurai. The samurai pointed out the disrespect but the commoner refused to apologise. Feeling merciful, the samurai offered the commoner his ‘wakizashi’ (short sword) so he had a chance to defend himself. Instead, the commoner decided to run away with his ‘wakizashi’, causing further dishonour. The incident resulted in the samurai being disowned from the clan. He later regained his honour by seeking out the commoner and killing the whole family.
                                                                                Wikipedia, ‘Kiri sute gomen’ entry
The phrase was also used, of all places, in the James Bond novel You Only Live Twice, where the villain Blofeld asks of Bond: "Have you ever heard the Japanese expression kirisute gomen?" to which Bond replies: "Spare me the Lafcadio Hearn, Blofeld."

Lafcadio Hearn a.k.a. Koizumi Yakumo, is an author of travel journals and Japanese ghost stories, largely credited with introducing Japan of the late 19th C. to the outside world. Lafcadio was a truly international writer if ever there was one. His peripatetic life began in Greece in 1850. Born to a British/Irish father (an army doctor) and a Greek mother of Maltese origin. Baptized in a Greek Orthodox church. Moved to Dublin with his mum when we was two years old (she went back to Greece soon thereafter), and subsequently lived in Wales with his aunt, who sent him off to attend Catholic colleges in Durham and France. Disenchanted by religion, Lafcadio renounces Catholicism. At the age of 19 he is sent to the U.S. where he stayed for 10 years, first in Cincinnati then New Orleans. There he wrote impassioned articles with a range of subjects, from corruption to the Creole cuisine, and is today credited with ‘inventing’ New Orleans as a place of mystery and exoticism. Apparently, more books have been written about him than any former resident of New Orleans other than Louis Armstrong.

Hearn spent two years in the French West Indies before being sent off to Japan as a newspaper correspondent. The paper’s commission broke off and Hearn spent the rest of his life in Japan, teaching and writing. His writing was so influential that not only it shaped Western perception of the country but also Japanese perceptions of Japan.

Lafcadio settled in the town of Matsue in western Japan, where he met and married Setsu Koizumi, a daughter in a high-ranking samurai family. Once a naturalized Japanese, Lafcadio changed his name to Koizumi Yakumo (wonder if he ever used kiri sute gomen phrase, now being a part of the samurai clan and all). Lafcadio died of heart failure in 1904, at the age of 54.

Lafcadio with wife and their first son. Lafcadio always preferred to be photographed from the side so that his left eye could not be seen. He lost vision in his eye during a playground accident at college.

Since 1960’s Lafcadio’s summer house has been on display at a commemorative park ‘Meiji Mura’ near Nagoya, where I hope to visit next week. Should my sojourn take place, the full report will naturally follow on these pages. Plus more on Lafcadio’s writings and influence. Stay tuned. 

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1 Reply to "Kiri Sute Gomen"

  • Dr. Ferris on 13 September 2018 at 15:13

    The term actually means "kill and walk away." It refers to the right of a samurai to slay any commoner for any real or perceived slight and to thereafter "walk away" without punishment. It was meant to be used to defer insult to a samurai's honor, but eventually became abused - for example, to kill a merchant who a samurai might owe money to, or to test a new sword.

    My understanding is that this privilege has been extended to members of police forces in the US, at least informally. Apparently the commoners and tax peasants in America are upset by this.