The Perils of Apology

What Japan Shouldn't Learn From Germany

More than 60 years after the end of World War II, chilly relations in East Asia stand in stark contrast to the thaw in western Europe. Germans have spent decades confronting and atoning for the crimes of the Nazi era. Today, Germany is welcomed as a leader in trade and diplomacy, and its military forces fight alongside those of its allies in UN and NATO operations. In 2004, the former Allies invited German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder to the 60th anniversary commemoration of the Normandy invasion. Standing beside the leaders of Germany's former adversaries, Schröder celebrated the day as the anniversary of Germany's liberation from fascism. French newspapers, featuring photos of the French and German leaders embracing, proclaimed it "the last day of World War II."

In Asia, by contrast, Japan's neighbors still keep a wary watch over the country that brutalized them in the early part of the twentieth century. Tokyo's official apologies for its past aggression and atrocities are dismissed as too little, too late. Worse, they often trigger denials and calls of revisionism in Japan, which anger and alarm the country's former victims. In 2005, when Japan's Education Ministry approved textbooks widely perceived as whitewashing Japan's past atrocities, violent protests erupted across China. Demonstrators overturned and torched Japanese cars, vandalized Japanese-owned businesses, and threw rocks and bottles at Japan's embassy in Beijing. Chinese and South Koreans routinely express fear that Japan may return to militarism: even Tokyo's dispatch of peacekeepers abroad creates unease. In East Asia, the last day of World War II has yet to come.

Why do Japan's neighbors care so much about its repentance? Skeptics, after all, might dismiss political apologies and other such gestures as "cheap talk." But how countries remember their pasts conveys information about their future behavior. Historically, states that have sought to mobilize their populaces for war have crafted nationalist narratives of the past. They have emphasized their adversaries' prior violence and have justified (or simply forgotten) their own. On the other hand, a willingness to acknowledge past atrocities signals peaceful foreign policy intentions. It also shows a state's commitment to human rights and conveys respect for another people's suffering.

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