It's Never Too Late to Say You're Sorry
Japan should not apologize for its past aggression by emulating the contrition that Germany has displayed since the mid-1960s because it would risk a nationalist backlash. A more promising model is the one set by West Germany in the 1950s, which focuses on the future.
To the Editor:
Jennifer Lind ("The Perils of Apology," May/June 2009) argues that Japan should avoid making formal apologies for the atrocities it committed before and during World War II, because doing so would cause a nationalist backlash that would be counterproductive to reconciliation between Japan and its former enemies. But Lind's solution would not only be deeply disappointing to the victims of imperial Japan; it would also make it impossible for Japan to garner the respect it deserves for its peaceful rise as an economic, technological, and cultural power since 1945.
The Japanese have yet to confront their ugly history and reach a widely shared understanding of it that is acceptable to their former foes. Japanese politicians repeatedly make outrageous comments defending Japan's colonial rule of Korea and its invasion of China, nationalist comic books glorify Japan's past militaristic adventures, and TV commentators passionately deny the government's role in recruiting thousands of Asian women and girls as sex slaves for Japanese soldiers.
To say that Japan should not apologize to the victims of its wartime atrocities to avoid a domestic nationalist backlash is akin to arguing that the police should not crack down on domestic violence because doing so might anger the abusers. A national debate, education, and sincere apologies are necessary not only to show Japan's moral decency to the world but also to help the Japanese come to terms with what their country did in the past. Only that will prevent a nationalist backlash from gaining mainstream acceptance.
Because Japan did not conduct a national debate over what went wrong when the memories were still fresh, it is much harder to talk about the collective guilt of the nation today, when most Japanese feel that they have nothing to do with what happened before 1945. Yet they suffer from the lack of such a debate and the absence of genuine contrition, because without these, their country will never be able to earn the trust of its neighbors and the respect of the world. Lind suggests a calculated move to deliver just enough contrition to satisfy the victims without provoking nationalist ire at home, but such a strategy would only further undermine Japan's position. People -- and countries -- know sincerity when they see it.
Japan owes a formal and sincere statement of contrition to those individuals who were subjected to unspeakable pain and humiliation at the hands of Japanese colonial officials and members of the imperial Japanese military. Most of them have passed away, often after a lifetime of suffering, but some, including the surviving former "comfort women" and the survivors of the Bataan Death March, are still waiting to hear the simple word "sorry," delivered to them by the collective and unequivocal voice of the Japanese people.
Associate Fellow, Asia Society