Languages of Security in the Asia-Pacific

College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University

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Japanese – Ikan

May 27th, 2011 · No Comments · Apology, Japanese

遺憾 (いかん)


Relates to apology

The term consists of two characters:

i – bequeath; leave behind; remain (often used in compounds pertaining to death e.g. 遺志  ishi “dying wish”,  遺児  iji “orphan”,   遺骸  igai “corpse body”)

kan – remorse; regret

Therefore combined together they mean: ‘regret remains’, ‘regretfully’


A concept related to stability and harmony, and a strategy to deal with a threat. The original meaning and the one to be found in most comprehensive dictionaries is one of regret. Ikan conveys the meaning of ‘apology’, yet it is closer to the meaning of ‘deep remorse’, ‘regret’ or ‘disappointment’ and is predominantly used as a way of presenting an apology.

The phrase, ‘遺憾の意を表します’ (ikan no i wo arawashimasu), ‘I express the sense of ikan’, is also often used to express condemnation or criticism for others’ actions.[1] Examples of common usage in everyday conversation are the phrases, ‘…を遺憾に思う’ (… o ikan ni omou) “to think the incident … as being ikan, and ‘遺憾である(ikan de aru), “It is ikan.”

Recently, ‘ikan’ has been used in the case of ministers issuing war apologies and by Japanese politicians when they have been caught out doing something reprehensible. In Iraq when US forces shot and killed an Italian journalist as he was being released from his captors, the official American statement was translated into Japanese using this expression.[2] Also, when China apologised to Japan for an incursion into Japanese waters by a nuclear submarine, they used this expression and it was interpreted by Koizumi as an apology.[3] As quoted in the Nikkei newspaper:


Futsuu no kunren no katei de, gijitsuteki na gen’in de ayamatte… Jiken no hassei o ikan ni omou.

“In the course of regular training, [the submarine] erred for technical reasons…we (the Chinese) think it regrettable that this incident occurred.”

To dissect ‘ikan’ carefully:

  1. Something happened which Person B and his group/nation feel affected them negatively.
  2. This incident was the responsibility of Person A and his group/nation.
  3. Person A will say to person B that he feels ikan about this incident.
  4. This allows Person B and his group to feel better about the incident – as if they received an apology.
  5. It also allows Person A and his group to feel OK, as they did not have to accept responsibility for the incident.

An important point here is that by interpreting the word in their own ways, it allows both sides to be satisfied.

‘Ikan’ is a concept relating to the preservation of harmony – the preservation of face ‘面子メンツ(mentsu). The Japanese are still quite aware of ‘face’, at an individual level as well as at a national level. That is, in territorial disputes, claims are not just about the value of the territory, but about preserving their claim MEANS WHAT?. ‘Ikan’ can be used to show one’s regrettable feelings or disappointment towards others’ actions. This word is cited when there is a relation of trust. In that sense, the person can save the other person’s face by using this term. For instance, in the case of Japanese and Chinese relations when a Chinese vessel crashed into the Japanese coast guard near the Senkaku/Diaoyutai islands, Japan denounced the dangerous actions taken by China’s vessels against Japan’s vessels by saying it was ‘ikan’, that is, “the incident was regrettable”. The use of ‘ikan’ in this context implied that because Japan trusted China they could not believe China could take such a hostile action, which made the Japanese disappointed. Thus, saving China’s face but still expressing Japan’s anger with China’s actions which has damaged the trust and harmonious relations.

Consequently, ‘regret’ and disappointment’ are implied when Japanese politicians use the term ikan, as opposed to the direct translation of ‘apology.’ While ‘ikan’ does convey the meaning of ‘apology’, a closer translation to the term is ‘謝罪’ (shazai) which also conveys the meaning of ‘apology’. The contrast between ikan and shazai is important as ‘ikan’ is a weaker expression of apology, in which the speaker doesn’t assume any responsibility to compensate for the damage done. On the other hand, ‘shazai’ – when the government uses this term to apologise – it implies that the government is responsible for making up for the caused damage, and is therefore ‘apologising’.

Therefore, ‘ikan’ is also a strategy used in dealing with a threat, and the threat here is the loss of (apparent) harmony, or security, between two parties. As such, using the term ikan is a powerful means of diffusing tension between two antagonistic parties, and thus allowing both sides in a tense situation to save face, without the need for a real apology to be stated. The reason why one would wish to avoid making an apology even if one thought that one was responsible for an incident is that it results in a loss of face.

Apologies, and the self-awareness that one has wronged another is a powerful psychological tool in Japanese society. By apologizing, using for instance the term ‘shazai’, causes one to lose face as it is a direct admission that the perpetrator has victimized another. The flexibility of the word ikan, on the other hand, allows both sides to be relatively satisfied with the outcome. The perpetrator admits knowledge of the incident and regret that it happened, and the other side is able to interpret this as an apology.

Ikan can lead to problems in the relations between two states, however, as the word has no strength unless both sides agree to interpret it in the way illustrated here. If the aggrieved party feels a need for a true apology, and perhaps for reparations as well, the use of ikan will only serve to aggravate existing tensions, rather than to ameliorate them. For example, in the case Japanese encroachment to other Asian countries during WWII, if a Prime Minister or politician were to use ‘ikan’, it sounds as if they are looking these incidents and the intrusion from the eyes of a third party. Thus implying that they not so much responsible but they feel they should say ‘ikan’ because they feel sorry towards those tortured by the Japanese. But recently when the Japanese government has tried to show their apology or apologise, especially regarding its wartime aggressions, they use the term “deep remorse”.


[2] Yomiuri Shimbun, 5 March 2005,



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