Rethinking the Role of Apology in Reconciliation

As social psychologist Herbert Kelman observed, former enemies can move toward reconciliation if they manage to revise their previously incompatible identities, but this “revision in the group’s identity and the associated narrative is possible only if the core of the identity remains intact.”1 Kelman and other social psychologists also suggested that one of the most effective ways to make perpetrators fully accept their guilt and responsibility is for the other parties to affirm the perpetrators’ humanity, especially when the perpetrators, too, suffered in the intergroup conflicts under consideration.2 For better or for worse, being simultaneously perpetrator and victim has become part and parcel of Japanese identity. This means that Japanese citizens will likely commemorate the suffering of South Korean and Chinese victims more extensively if their own dual identity as both perpetrator and victim can remain intact. Put another way, while Japan needs to embrace a greater degree of contrition first, South Korea and China will have to meet Japan halfway. This cosmopolitan commemoration on the part of South Korea and China has the potential to move Japan to fully accept its war responsibility because doing so will no longer threaten the core of Japan’s dual identity. Here, cosmopolitan commemoration needs to be envisioned as a collective endeavor.

To reciprocate cosmopolitan commemoration toward Japan, however, the governments and citizens in South Korea and China face a very difficult task: to work through negative emotions of anger, hatred, and vengefulness entangled in their commemorations of Japan’s past wrongdoings. As Paul Ricoeur observed, “There can be an institution of amnesty, which does not mean amnesia. I would say that there is no symmetry between the duty to remember and the duty to forget, because the duty to remember is a duty to teach, whereas the duty to forget is a duty to go beyond anger and hatred.”3 While Japan has the duty to remember the suffering of South Korean and Chinese victims and teach it to younger generations, South Korea and China can be said to have the duty to forgive, not by forgetting, but by overcoming hostile emotions toward Japan and recognizing Japanese people’s humanity.4 Park Yu Ha suggested that such forgiveness is necessary not only for perpetrators but also for victims to be freed from past traumas, and that “this kind of forgiveness does not amount to the forgetting and concealment of the past but points to the new relationship [between perpetrators and victims] that enables a deeper gaze into history.”5 In essence, reconciliation presupposes reciprocity.6

“Amnesty,” however, is usually granted in cases of domestic conflicts, such as civil war and violence against ethnic minorities, rather than in cases of international conflicts. Since Japan, South Korea, and China do not form a single polity, Ricoeur’s observation on amnesty can be simply imported metaphorically into the history problem in East Asia. Alternatively, amnesty can be understood in the performative sense of creating the reality it purports to describe. That is, reconciliation in the context of East Asia is not merely about restoring impaired relations; rather, it involves a performative act to create new relations and thereby build the transnational polity to come.7 In fact, given the rate of increase in economic, political, and social interactions between Japan, South Korea, and China, the governments and citizens in the three countries will need more channels of communication and mechanisms of coordination if they want to cope effectively with emerging transnational problems, such as environmental pollution. The extent to which the governments and citizens in South Korea and China are willing to grant Japan amnesty thus holds the key to reconciliation and the possible formation of the transnational polity bringing the three countries together.

To performatively facilitate reconciliation in East Asia, I suggest that apology on Japan’s part is crucial. This is not only because Japan bears the largest share of responsibility for the history problem but also because apology is a performative speech act par excellence, aimed at reestablishing a temporarily strained social relationship between members who belong to the same moral community.8 Japan’s apology to South Korea and China would therefore exemplify the cosmopolitan logic of commemoration that recognizes common humanity in foreign others by going beyond the logic of nationalism that would reject the necessity of remembering past wrongs inflicted on them.

Apology in the context of East Asia’s history probl em, however, is extremely challenging because it necessarily involves “pol itical apology,” a subset of what sociologist Nicholas Tavuchis called “Many to One apology,” wherein the government (a collective actor) apologizes to an individual that it victimized through its past action.9 According to political scientists and philosophers, even though instances of political apologies have multiplied in recent decades, as redress movements based on human rights have proliferated around the world, they are far more likely to fail than succeed.10 This difficulty of political apology has been demonstrated by the recent history of Japan’s relations with South Korea and China. As Norma Field and Jennifer Lind documented, in so many instances, the apologies offered by the Japanese government escalated the history probl em rather than helped relevant political actors move toward mutual cosmopolitan commemoration.11 This is primarily because no common understanding of the past exists to coordinate interactions between the Japanese government and South Korean and Chinese victims; for example, “historical facts” about Japan’s past wrongdoings, such as comfort women and the Nanjing Massacre, are still highly contested. A satisfactory apology is possible only if the perpetrator government and the individual victims agree on what wrong was committed—apology is first and foremost commemorative because it presupposes acknowledgment of a past wrong. Since such agreement is lacking, the Japanese government has been unable to script an apology capable of satisfying the victims.12

In addition, it is difficult for a Japanese prime minister to anthropomorphize the government as a unified actor, given that the government is fundamentally fractured by multiple ministries and coalition partners. For example, the apologies by Japanese prime ministers in the 1990s were frequently met with opposition and even backlash from conservative LDP members in their cabinets. As a result, the Japanese government failed to achieve the status of unified actorhood, a precondition for an unequivocal political apology. Even if a prime minister succeeds in unifying the government, however, he or she will still face another difficult challenge: to make his or her apology emotionally satisfactory to victims. Especially with regard to traumatic events, victims often seek emotional closure, no matter how provisional it may be. And yet, no Japanese prime minister has ever offered an emotional apology by mobilizing his facial and bodily expressions or by holding a face-to-face meeting with victims. In fact, a political apology, typically delivered to the general public, tends to be impersonal and therefore unsuitable for bringing emotional closure to victims.

Here, the difficulty on the part of the government is compounded by the heterogeneity of audiences, ranging from foreign victims and their supporters to conservative constituencies inside Japan. This heterogeneity has made the Japanese government’s apology vulnerable to denunciations from opposing sides. On the one hand, South Korean and Chinese victims of Japan’s past wrongdoings, as well as their Japanese and international supporters, rejected the government’s apology as inadequate because it was not accompanied by compensation. On the other hand, conservative politicians and NGOs criticized the government for giving in to foreign pressure even when there was nothing to apologize for. Contradictory reactions from the opposing audiences then bounced off each other in the public sphere, creating unexpected dynamics that damaged the relationship that the government’s apology originally intended to repair. The unexpected dynamics were also exacerbated by television, radio, and other forms of mass communication that mediated political apologies.13 Particularly in the transnational context, mass media plays a crucial role in influencing audiences’ perceptions because the majority of victims and their supporters are likely to hear the perpetrator government’s apology through media coverage.

Perhaps the most serious challenge in a political apology is the issue of compensation. As sociologist John Torpey observed, “Despite frequent claims that reparations would be good for all concerned, both perpetrators and victims, reparations politics makes claims on behalf of victims and is hence unavoidably partisan.”14 Indeed, the South Korean and Chinese demands for compensation for war-related damages triggered the vicious circle of mutually reinforcing nationalist commemorations because they reproduced the binary, partisan opposition between innocent South Korean and Chinese victims and the evil Japanese government.

Nevertheless, for the Japanese government’s apology to be convincing, it needs to be supported by compensation and other forms of material evidence. In fact, the primary function of compensation is to reinforce the sincerity of apology that a perpetrator tries to communicate to victims.15 Take, for example, Avi Primor, an Israeli diplomat who was involved in the Remembrance, Responsibility, and Future Fund that the German government set up to financially compensate former forced laborers and other victims of Nazi Germany. When interviewed by Funabashi Yoichi, Primor emphasized the symbolic function of monetary compensation as follows:

At the fundamental level, the aim of this fund is not simply to compensate victims of forced labor. Let’s say that there was a Russian who was

captured by Nazi Germany and forced to work under incredibly inhumane conditions for five years. Now, he could receive fifteen thousand

Deutsche marks, approximately five to six thousand U.S. dollars, from the Fund. Is this all he could get for five years of forced labor? Everybody would think it’s so little. . . . But this is really not about financial compensation but about symbolic recognition—that’s the crucial thing.16

The Japanese government, however, has failed to support its apologies with sufficient material evidence. Even though the government offered relief for South Korean A-bomb victims and former comfort women, it refused to call it “compensation” (hosho), thus compromising its function to symbolize recognition. To be sure, the government finally agreed to provide one billion Japanese yen for former comfort women in South Korea in December 2015,17 but it has also actively diminished another form of material evidence— descriptions of Japan’s past wrongdoings in history textbooks—by tightening the textbook-inspection criteria between the late 1990s and 2015.18

Given these difficulties surrounding a political apology in the transnational context, the Japanese government needs to do extensive preparation behind the stage if it hopes to offer an apology capable of satisfying South Korean and Chinese victims. To say the least, such backstage preparation requires agreement among different officials and ministries, as well as communication with multiple audiences and comprehension of their commemorative positions. But such backstage preparation has been lacking. The Japanese government, for example, was unwilling to collect information on how former comfort women and their supporters would react to the Asian Women’s Fund. As Totsuka Etsuro, a lawyer who provided legal support for former comfort women, recounted, “There was no prior, preliminary talk between the Japanese government and victims. The Japanese government unilaterally decided on a solution . . . and asked victims to accept it. . . . The government did not know how the victims would react because it had failed to listen to them carefully.”19 Without extensive communication with victims, the government may well aggravate the suffering of victims. As Kim Pu Ja, a professor at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies and longtime supporter of former comfort woman, observed, “From the perspective of the Asian Women’s Fund, foreign victims are passive objects that should accept Japan’s concerns and opinions—their agency (shutaisei) is ignored. Is this not a reenactment of colonial relations?”20 Only with extensive background preparation can the Japanese government ever expect to deliver an apology that will fully recognize the suffering of victims.

Indeed, any successful apology requires the victim’s participation: a political apology, publicly offered, can be completed only when it is publicly accepted. As political scientist Victor Cha suggested, “Historical reconciliation is a two-way street. A necessary (but not sufficient) condition is the proffering of formal acts of contrition and evidence of attitudinal changes on the part of the aggressor. Such acts, however, produce no reconciliation without a willingness on the part of the victim to accept the apology and move on.”21 Here, reconciliation, initiated by apologies, is necessarily mutual and interactive.22 But this would require an enormous amount of work involving an enormous number of relevant political actors, ranging from government officials to victims and their supporters in Japan, South Korea, and China. I therefore suggest that the critics of the Japanese government need be more conscious of the difficulties inherent in political apologies and their fundamentally processual nature—as political philosopher Nick Smith pointed out, apologies are only “beginnings not conclusions” in the arduous pursuit of eventual reconciliation between perpetrators and victims.23

After all, Japan has been asked to set a moral example for other countries, to apologize for its past wrongdoings that include the colonial rule of Korea. This is no ordinary task, as recognized by observers of East Asia’s history problem. For example, Kim Bong Jin, a South Korean professor at the City University of Northern Kyushu, praised the 1995 Murayama Statement as being “groundbreaking as the first ever official apology for colonialism in the world,” even though he criticized the lack of adequate follow-up actions on the part of the Japanese government.24 Park Yu Ha also called for Japan’s apology for its colonial rule of Korea in the performative spirit: “If Japan volunteers to take responsibility for the problems that it caused as a former imperial power, Japan can show a good example to the Western countries that have not considered apologizing for their colonial rule.”25 Similarly, Onuma Yasuaki urged Japanese citizens to take on this extraordinary task: “Japan should not refuse to apologize to people in Asia because the Western countries have not. Instead, Japan should accomplish the difficult task of apology and atonement and, then, quietly question the Western countries whether they will do the same.”26

When discussing “Japan’s apology,” however, it is critical to avoid limiting the subject to the Japanese government. East Asia’s history problem persists partly because the government-centered view of war responsibility has prevented Japanese citizens from examining their share of responsibility for

Japan’s past wrongdoings. In this respect, older generations of Japanese citizens who participated in the Asia-Pacific War owe apologies to foreign victims. If a large number of them had examined and accepted their share of war responsibility, they could have put more pressure on the government to incorporate cosmopolitanism in Japan’s official commemoration, and the governments and citizens in South Korea and China could have been more receptive to Japan’s apology.

However, most of the older generations, partial authors of Japan’s past wrongdoings, have passed away and shifted the burden of the history problem to younger generations of Japanese citizens who were born after the war’s end. What kind of responsibility do these younger generations have for Japan’s past wrongdoings? Do they also owe apologies to foreign victims?

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