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The Wisdom of Japan’s Cunning Contrition

Questions for Jennifer Lind, an expert on apologies in international politics.

Lee Yong-Soo (R), along with two other former South Korean "comfort women" Kim Bok-Dong (L) and Gil Won-Ok (C), voices criticism at talks with South Korean First Vice Foreign Minister Lim Sung-Nam (not pictured) during his visit to a shelter for women, who were forcibly recruited to work in Japanese wartime military brothels, in Seoul on December 29, 2015.  South Korean officials met with former "comfort women" to seek their support for a landmark deal with Japan, after criticism it does not properly atone for the treatment of women forced into WWII army brothels.  AFP PHOTO / POOL / JUNG YEON-JE / AFP / POOL / JUNG YEON-JE        (Photo credit should read JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images)
Lee Yong-Soo (R), along with two other former South Korean "comfort women" Kim Bok-Dong (L) and Gil Won-Ok (C), voices criticism at talks with South Korean First Vice Foreign Minister Lim Sung-Nam (not pictured) during his visit to a shelter for women, who were forcibly recruited to work in Japanese wartime military brothels, in Seoul on December 29, 2015. South Korean officials met with former "comfort women" to seek their support for a landmark deal with Japan, after criticism it does not properly atone for the treatment of women forced into WWII army brothels. AFP PHOTO / POOL / JUNG YEON-JE / AFP / POOL / JUNG YEON-JE (Photo credit should read JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images)

Japan and South Korea’s Monday agreement to end a long diplomatic deadlock over “comfort women,” the women and girls forced into sexual slavery by Japanese troops during World War II, met with immediate praise in some quarters, including from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. The New York Times’ editorial board wrote that both governments “deserve credit for seeking to end” the dispute and the Guardian called the agreement “a clear step forward.”

Then there’s Jennifer Lind, a professor at Dartmouth and expert on apologies in international politics, who has a more nuanced take. Lind’s 2008 book, Sorry States, questions the conventional wisdom that apologies are always the best path forward in disputes over historical human rights abuses. Her conclusion about Japan’s  apology? It has less to do with newfound historical reckoning and was more about enlisting South Korea in a unified front in the face of rising China.

Foreign Policy asked Lind to explain her perspective.

This interview, conducted over email, has been condensed and edited for clarity and space.

FP: Were you surprised by the Japanese apology and do you think it was the right way forward?

JL: I think the apology ― the wording itself ― was really the least interesting part of this agreement. Japan has apologized many times before (including to the comfort women). And we’ve heard this same sort of language several times before from Abe himself (including just this summer). So the statement was unsurprising given this context.

What is different is that two very key groups were on board this time. The first group is Japanese conservatives, who thought that previous attempts to offer an apology went too far. This time, though, conservatives actually negotiated the agreement, so they are onboard. The second important group onboard this time is the South Korean government. So this time, having those two groups on board is very important for it begin accepted. (Note that there are some groups still not on board: the Korean public and the survivors. Either/both may ultimately torpedo this.)

FP: What were the downsides to this apology?

JL: Abe and his conservative supporters dispute many aspects of the story of the “comfort women” and have been angered by Seoul’s persistence on this issue. So in general they are unlikely to support apologies on this. Abe, however, is very strong politically. Opposition would also be balanced by the fact that the same conservatives who dislike an apology are also the ones prone to recognize that this agreement makes good strategic sense (to smooth relations with South Korea).

FP: You’ve written about the dangers of the nationalist backlash that apologies can cause. What can we expect to see in this case?

JL: Conservative backlash to apologies often undermines their positive effects. But this is much less likely in this case, given that the agreement was negotiated by a conservative government. In other words, the faction that usually would backlash against such an agreement is the very faction that negotiated it.

FP: Do you think Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made the right call?

JL: Reaching out to South Korea is a strategically wise move for Japan. Japan is the more threatened party (from China) so Japan needs this more than the South Koreans do (they don’t perceive a threat from China). History issues require compromise to manage, and Tokyo, as well as Seoul, compromised a lot here.

FP: Why did this take so long to come about?

JL: Apologies are very rare in international politics; basically countries simply do not apologize, ever. Countries don’t do that. Japan is one of the few that has. The other country is Germany. Others do not apologize for matters such as this.

FP: Why are World War II atrocities still alive in the political sphere in Asia when they have largely faded away in the United States and Europe?

JL: The Western Europeans needed each other given a severe and shared Soviet threat. So they had to agree to move forward (and compromise on very raw, emotional human rights issues.) Japan and South Korea had no shared threat to bring them together; each had its security guaranteed by the United States.

FP: Has China ever apologized for anything internationally?

JL: Not to my knowledge. The Chinese government in particular owes a historical reckoning to its own people, who died in the tens of millions due to government economic mismanagement, as well as the torment of the Cultural Revolution. But the Chinese Communist Party censors this sort of historical inquiry or exploration of the national past.

Photo credit: Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images

Benjamin Soloway is an associate editor at Foreign Policy. @bsoloway

Henry Johnson is a fellow at Foreign Policy. He graduated from Claremont McKenna College with a degree in history and previously wrote for LobeLog. @HenryJohnsoon

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