Why Japan Has to Keep Apologizing
Photo Credit: Reuters
By Peter Kien-hong Yu

Why Japan Has to Keep Apologizing

Mar. 07, 2017  |     |  1 comments

In September 2016, Foreign Policy discussed the world’s ten most dangerous countries. Mostly are in the poor and backward Third World. Charlie S. Y. Chang said none of them are dangerous, and Japan should be on the list instead.1 Chang was a professional soldier, and he specifically referred to the Japanese ethos — as opposed to spirit, both of which can be translated as jing shen in Mandarin Chinese.

Since the end of World War II, the Japanese have apologized many times for the war crimes and atrocities their country had committed. Among these apologies:

1.  Two versions of Emperor Showa Hirohito’s formal apology. First, he reportedly said to US Army General Douglas MacArthur: “I come before you to offer myself to the judgment of the powers you represent, as one to bear sole responsibility for every political and military decision made and action taken by my people in the conduct of the war.” Patrick L. Tierney, who worked as a Commissioner of Art and Monuments during the Allied occupation of Japan, recounts a different version: Hirohito had gone to MacArthur’s office, but the general refused to admit or acknowledge him. Anyway, we must put a question mark as to whether Hirohito retracted what he said to his subjects on August 15, 1945. On that day, the monarch made his first ever broadcast to the common people of Imperial Japan, enjoining his subjects “to endure the unendurable and bear the unbearable.” The crucial issue is that he never spoke explicitly about “surrender” or “defeat,” but simply remarked that the war “did not turn in Japan’s favor.” This is, indeed, a classic example of understatement.

2.  Nobusuke Kishi, who was suspected as a “Class A” war criminal but was released by the Allied Occupation authorities after the war, was the prime minister from February 1957 to July 1960. In the first year of his office, he used the following words, which were addressed to the people of Burma: “with deep regret the vexation we caused.” And to the people of Australia, he used the following words: “our heartfelt sorrow for what occurred in the war.” However, why did Kishi fail to use other words which carry more weight, such as “truly regrettable,” “deeply remorseful” and “keenly conscious of the responsibility for the serious damage that Japan caused in the past … and deeply reproaches itself,” which were uttered by other Japanese government officials and politicians? Here, we must contrast the magnitude of each phrase and distinguish between formal or superficial statements of remorse.

3.  Shinzo Abe, who is a grandson of Kishi, is the first prime minister of Japan to have been born after the Second World War. In October 2013, he made the following remark: “Japan inflicted tremendous damage and suffering on people in many countries, especially in Asia. The Abe Cabinet will take the same stance as that of past Cabinets.” Was he 100% sincere in his apology? Abe’s apology was followed on the same day by a group of 80 Japanese lawmakers’ visit to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, which enshrines 1,068 convicted World War II criminals.

It has often been reported that Tokyo is tired of having to repeatedly apologize to others. By now, have the Japanese really figured out the major reason why most victimized countries to this day still feel very uncomfortable about their apologies, in one way or another?

Several reasons can be first pinpointed. After that, I will put forward my own suggestion.

First, in September 1945, the unconditional surrender of the Japanese Empire was formally confirmed aboard the US battleship Missouri. Representing the Allied forces, MacArthur stepped before a battery of microphones and opened the 23-minute surrender ceremony to the waiting world and stated: “It is my earnest hope — indeed the hope of all mankind — that from this solemn occasion a better world shall emerge out of the blood and carnage of the past, a world founded upon faith and understanding, a world dedicated to the dignity of man and the fulfillment of his most cherished wish for freedom, tolerance, and justice [italics mine].”

To be sure, what the general said was mainly expressed from the United States perspective. To the Japanese, especially those who subscribed to Bushido, which constitutes the centuries-old Japanese ethos and which is loosely analogous to the European concept of chivalry or knighthood, the signing of the surrender instrument can be rationalized as a temporary, humiliating defeat of a battle, as opposed to war. What Hirohito implied was bu ren shu (never ever surrender) and such words can still echo in their ears. Some of them may even feel that they were wronged, arguing that had Imperial Japan first invented the atomic bomb, the war would have ultimately ended in their favor.

Second, did MacArthur and, for that matter, 21st century Americans, understand Bushido? In this connection, can a better world really emerge, if 21st or 22nd century Japan is peopled by jingoists? We must not forget that even the American presidential election in November 2016 was labeled as populist and to a great extent manipulated by the mass media.

Third, Abe paid an official visit in February 2017 to the new, erratic American president, Donald Trump. In December 2016, Abe, in a historic gesture as a Prime Minister of Japan, laid wreaths at the site which witnessed the December 1941 Pearl Harbor attack that plunged the United States into the Second World War. He offered his “sincere and everlasting condolences” for the bombing that killed more than 2,400 Americans.

Standing next to then-US president Barack Obama, Abe solemnly vowed that Japan “must never repeat the horrors of war again.” However, doubts remain, and The Guardian’s observation is keen: “Just as Obama did not offer an apology when he became the first sitting US president to visit Hiroshima Peace Memorial in May [2016], Abe did not explicitly apologize but instead repeatedly spoke of reconciliation.” I, for one, would like to pose the following tough question: Why did Abe not follow the footsteps of then-German Chancellor Willy Brandt, who in December 1970 in a symbolic gesture of humility and penance, unexpectedly fell to his knees towards the victims, especially the Jews, of the April 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and remained there for more than a minute?

Fourth, MacArthur has often been criticized for forcing the Japanese to accept a Western-style constitution. After restoring its sovereign status in the early 1950s, right-wing activists in Japan began their outcry for Japan to become a normal country again, and to revise their post-war constitution, which stipulates that “the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes.” If such activists did not exist today, most non-Japanese would not have to worry about the nationalistic and militaristic dimensions of Bushido.

Today, many Japanese are still inspired by Bushido. Compare professional wrestlers of Japan with professional wrestling in the US, which “tends to be more concerned with cartoonish physique and dubious acting skills.” A spectator, Maddux J. T. Yang, reminded me that American wrestlers try to tell a story during the fight,2 while in Japanese matches, there is fighting spirit and utmost perseverance. A Japanese wrestler could be beaten almost to death but would in his last breath use his full force to punch or slam the body of his challenger, before retreating to his corner for help. Only then would we see the next player in the team come into play. One who has a firm grasp of Bushido knows that Japanese practitioners will not admit losing but will try to defeat their opponents in every possible way, so as to retrieve their sense of honor in their inner hearts and minds.

Yes, Bushido is still alive in Japan today, although I believe that extreme Bushido practice only applies to a dwindling number of followers. If a traditional samurai, who belongs to the warrior caste, fails to uphold his sacred honor, he can only regain it by committing seppuku (ritual suicide).

In a nutshell, when can the Japanese stop apologizing to others? I believe this will happen when Abe or one of his successors repeats Brandt’s action, with something extra, such as holding the 1997 best-seller, The Rape of Nanjing: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II. This will genuinely demonstrate a remorseful apology.3

Jaw-Shen Tsai, a Chinese professor at a university in Tokyo, made the following penetrating observation:

“The Cold War played a much bigger role. On one hand, in Europe, Germany had to promote postwar reconciliation with the neighboring European nations. It was a very high priority task. On the other, Japan lost a golden opportunity to promote a similar policy to the rest of the Asian nations, because of the Cold War. With America backing them up strongly, there is no need to even talk to China and Russia and so on after World War II. In the post-Cold War era, I think they should seek a good timing to endorse a genuine reconciliation.”4

It is therefore high time for Abe, as a postwar leader, to visit the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall in China. After that, the WWII victims on both sides of the Taiwan Strait and elsewhere will rest in eternal peace, and their descendants will forgive and forget what had happened. However, according to another insightful observer, the pivotal moment may have passed, because unless the superpower, Washington, exerts pressure on Tokyo, the latter will simply ignore it.5


1. Personal correspondence, dated February 14, 2017.

2. Personal correspondence, dated February 14, 2017.

3. See also Ward, T. J. and Lay, W. D. (December 2016). The comfort women controversy: Not yet over. East Asia: An International Quarterly, 33(4), 255-269.

4. Personal correspondence, dated February 13, 2017.

5. Personal correspondence, dated February 14 and 16, 2017.

1 Comments To This Article

  • Jp

    on Mar 12, 2017 at 08:58 PM - Reply


    And what about the US action to force Japan to open the country to foreigners in 1853 and later. US did once again trigger conflict in a foreign country. It's seems that none of this would have happend then.

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