Saying UnSorry

Will Japan's new prime minister really take back his country's apology for World War II?


In late December, newly installed Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced that he will revisit Japan’s 1995 apology for the suffering the country wrought in Asia during World War II. That apology admitted that the Japanese Imperial Army had forced females, mostly from Korea, China, Japan, and the Philippines, known euphemistically as "comfort women," to work in brothels during the Japanese occupation. "This is entirely inexcusable," the prime minister at the time, Tomiichi Murayama, said in a statement. "I offer my profound apology to all those who, as wartime comfort women, suffered emotional and physical wounds that can never be closed."

The hawkish Abe, who has publicly and repeatedly denied that comfort women served Japanese soldiers against their will, is unrepentant about Japan’s wartime behavior. In his best-selling book utsukushii kuni e (To a Beautiful Country), published during his previous term as prime minister in 2006, Abe even argued that Japanese war criminals convicted in the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal were not guilty under Japanese law.

None of this has gone over well with the neighbors. South Korea’s president-elect Park Geun-hye responded to Abe’s remarks by saying that Japan "needed to come to terms with its colonial history," while a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman urged Japan to "adopt a spirit of reflecting on history." On Jan. 4, an anti-Japanese protester stabbed himself in the stomach at Seoul’s Kimpo Airport to protest the arrival of a special envoy dispatched by Abe to soothe ties between the two countries, while former comfort women, now in their 80s and 90s, continue to gather outside the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, as they have for decades, to demand even more contrition and reparations from Tokyo.

For the past few weeks, Abe has kept a low profile on the subject. He avoided mentioning it in his policy address to the Diet on Jan. 28, focusing mainly on domestic matters such as recovery and reconstruction from the Great East Japan Earthquake and escape from the "bog of deflation" that has plagued Japan in recent years. Few analysts, however, doubt the ultranationalist politician will eventually make good on his promise to unapologize.

Why is the Japanese apology such a big issue? The Japanese emperor surrendered on August 1945; Japanese officials have made an estimated 54 different apologies to Japan’s Asian neighbors, including South Korea, China, Singapore, Taiwan, and the Philippines, since they began apologizing in 1957, in addition to paying more than $3 billion in reparations and surrendering more than $23 billion of government and private assets Japan held in the countries it occupied. (Japan never apologized or paid compensation to North Korea, however, because the two countries have never had formal diplomatic relations.) But from Japan’s neighbors’ perspective, it hasn’t been enough — and Abe’s curious decision to re-open these old wounds has only heightened their sensitivity.

There are more than a dozen ways to apologize in Japanese, from sumimasen (after bumping into someone on the subway) to makoto ni moshiwake gozaimasen deshita (after spilling a drink on the Emperor at his annual garden party), and Japanese officials have likely tried them all, except for the dogeza, the ultimate form of apology, which consists of placing one’s knees and forehead on the floor. Japanese officials, moreover, have generally avoided forthright admissions and actual use of the word "apologize" (shazai), to avoid angering right-wing supporters who don’t want any admission of wrongdoing. Instead, they have resorted to generalities and terms like remorse, regret, sorrow, and self-reproach, which dance around the issue and minimize responsibility, similar in tone to the non-apologies often used by public figures in the United States, such as, "If my remarks offended anyone, I deeply regret it."

Apologies by prime ministers are often undone by offensive behavior by other Japanese politicians. In April 2005, then Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi expressed his "deep remorse and heartfelt apology" for the suffering that Japan caused other Asian countries during World War II. Only hours before, however, 81 members of Japan’s legislature, belonging to Koizumi’s own party, had visited Yasukuni Shrine, where Japan’s war dead are enshrined, prompting the Chinese Foreign Ministry to express its "strong dissatisfaction" over the "negative behavior" of Japan’s politicians.

Most Japanese recognize that Japan did bad things before and during World War II. But they are also weary of the apology issue and complain that no matter how contrite their leaders are, Japan’s Asian neighbors will find a way to blame them. In 2010, another Japanese prime minister, Naoto Kan, expressed "deep remorse" and a "heartfelt apology" to South Koreans for Japan’s colonization of the Korean Peninsula. This prompted complaints from Koreans that Japan did not admit the "illegality" of its occupation, while Chinese grumbled that Kan had chosen to ignore Japan’s colonial history in China.

Taiwan, the Philippines, and Burma also suffered under Japanese rule. So why have South Korea and China been so much less willing to forget wartime injustices? Perhaps it’s the scale of the crimes in question: Japan occupied the Korean peninsula from 1910 to 1945, imposed the Japanese language on its people, brutally repressed a rebellion, and brought hundreds of thousands of Koreans to Japan as forced labor. Japan occupied a huge swath of Chinese territory during and before World War II; in one particularly brutal period in December 1937, now known as the Rape of Nanking, the Japanese slaughtered as many as 300,000 Chinese.

But keeping the apology issue alive is also geopolitically convenient, especially for China. The controversy over Abe’s unapology comes on the heels of a recent escalation of disputes between Japan and China, and between Japan and South Korea, over the ownership of uninhabited islands in the waters around the three countries. "I don’t think that China or the Koreas are inclined to let Japan off the hook of history. It’s way too convenient to keep Japan on its back heels diplomatically," Temple University professor and Japan expert Jeffrey Kingston told me.

Shinzo Abe, whose own grandfather was imprisoned for war crimes before going on to become prime minister in 1957, would no doubt agree with that. But before he creates any more tension, he had better focus on the reason voters elected him in the first place: his vow to fix the stagnant Japanese economy. If he doesn’t do that, he may not be around long enough to unapologize to the rest of Asia.

Robert Whiting is the author of Tokyo Underworld and You Gotta Have Wa, among other books. Along with the former diplomat David Roberts, he is working together with award-winning news anchor Dan Rather and his production company, News and Guts, on a documentary about how the '64 Olympics transformed Tokyo.