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Lots of elected officials expressed outrage at the news that failing insurance company AIG was giving large bonuses to employees while accepting taxpayer money to stay afloat. But few expressed their outrage with AIG officials as starkly as Sen. Charles Grassley, Republican of Iowa.
"I suggest, you know, obviously, maybe they ought to be removed," Grassley said. "But I would suggest the first thing that would make me feel a little bit better toward them if they'd follow the Japanese example and come before the American people and take that deep bow and say, I'm sorry, and then either do one of two things: resign or go commit suicide."
"And in the case of the Japanese, they usually commit suicide before they make any apology."
The next day, Grassley specified that he was not suggesting AIG executives should kill themselves, though he did say he wanted an apology.
We wondered if Grassley was right that Japanese executives who make significant mistakes often apologize and then resign or commit suicide.
We found many news stories of Japanese executives apologizing, a process in which the person stands and bows deeply. One story we found about a Sony battery problem detailed the exact posture of the executives. It noted they were seated while they bowed "and did not bow deeply," which signaled how Sony had been reluctant to admit fault. The story noted that none of the Sony executives resigned.
We also spoke with Gary Knight, a professor of international business at Florida State University who teaches annual business courses in Japan.
Knight confirmed that apologies and resignations are more common among Japanese executives than their U.S. counterparts.
"Culturally, it's pretty different than the U.S.," Knight said. "It's certainly the norm that if a top executive commits a blunder that affects employees or customers, they would apologize for it."
Resignations are common, too, though that doesn't always solve problems, Knight said.
"The person resigning may be the most knowledgeable person at the firm. Meanwhile, you're faced with finding a manager who can solve the problem," he said.
But executive suicides — not so common. Knight said they happen occasionally, but overall they are "pretty rare."
Suicide in Japan is actually a serious social problem, according to several news reports. More than 30,000 people a year commit suicide in Japan, giving it one of the highest suicide rates among industrialized countries.
None of the reports we reviewed singled out shamed executives, however. In fact, the most commonly cited groups of special concern were laid-off workers, the elderly and the young.
In conclusion, we find that Grassley gets the apologies and resignations right, but overstates the regularity of suicides. Apologies appear to be much more common than suicides. So we rate his statement Half True.
The Economist, Rash of suicides horrifies Japan , May 1, 2008
New York Times, Japan: Guidelines to reduce the suicide rate , June 9, 2007
The Associated Press, Sony apologizes for battery recall , Oct. 24, 2006
Interview with Gary Knight of Florida State University
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