The Difficulty of Apology

By Ogawa, Shuko | Harvard International Review, Fall 2000 | Go to article overview

The Difficulty of Apology

Ogawa, Shuko, Harvard International Review

Japan's Struggle with Memory and Guilt

The complex relationship between domestic politics and war issues makes war guilt a controversial topic in Japan. Japan's World War II occupation of a substantial part of Asia left indelible scars. The Nanking Massacre and the plight of the Korean "comfort women," stand out among examples of Japanese cruelty during the war era. The "Rape of Nanking" occurred in late 1937 when the Japanese Imperial Army took control of the city of Nanking,

China, and slaughtered, mutilated, and raped anywhere between 100,000 to 350,000 Chinese. "Comfort women" were officially provided to the rampaging Imperial troops in the field; as many as 200,000 women, mostly Korean but also Burmese, Chinese, Taiwanese, Filipino, Indonesian, and Dutch, were forced into prostitution.

A Japanese politician's attitude toward the war is a political barometer in the public eye, much as abortion stances or affirmative action are in the United States. The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which has largely dominated post-war governments, includes a broad spectrum of factions that receive support from various sectors of Japanese society. Groups on the left, such as teachers' unions and grassroots groups, believe in atonement for war crimes, further compensation to victims, school education imparting the full scope of Japanese atrocities during the war, and caution against a resurgence of Japanese militarism. The revisionist right, especially strong among LDP members, says Japan has financially aided its Asian neighbors enough, and that the bilateral treaties signed with China and South Korea in 1978 and 1965, respectively, exonerate Japan of any further official obligations. Additionally, the social conservatives believe children should be allowed to have pride in their country, and thus not be o verexposed to Japanese wartime atrocities.

To this day, despite new evidence pointing to Japanese culpability, various members of the Japanese elite, still largely conservative, continue to downplay or even deny official Japanese complicity in these two appalling episodes. Such stances by men in the highest levels of politics and academia have not assuaged the fears of neighboring Asian nations, or indeed of countries throughout the world, that still harbor deep suspicions about a possible revival of Japanese militarism. However, it has become increasingly difficult for revisionist politicians to express their opinions openly without suffering some political consequences.

The Japanese public's perception of World War II is particularly complicated by cultural traits shared by some Japanese, including a deeply ingrained deference toward ancestors, submission to authority and a victim mentality about the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After the war, Emperor Hirohito remained on the throne a respected figure--although only as a figurehead--and many bureaucrats who ran the daily government apparatus during World War II retained their positions through the postwar era, denying Japan a clean cultural or structural break with the war. Ideological wars have been fought over the wording of history textbooks, commemoration of the war dead, and personal compensation demands from foreigners who suffered at the hands of the Japanese during the war.

Developments in the last few years, spurred perhaps by the intense soul-searching conducted in 1995 on the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II, have shown encouraging trends, both public (an official apology) and private (polls showing support for further government action), toward full Japanese acceptance of responsibility. Nonetheless, if Japan wishes to assume a more active international role, it must credibly and completely confront its past. Only then will Japan be able to act freely without inviting distrust about the motives behind its objectives, such as a permanent member seat on the UN Security Council, or a more assertive role in peacekeeping missions. …

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