Why Japan Is Still Not Sorry Enough

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December 1947: Former Japanese prime minister and minister of war Hideki Tojo (1885 - 1948) takes the stand to testify in his own defense at the war crimes trial in Tokyo. Tojo was convicted and executed.

Keen observers know that Japan’s ugly territorial disputes with its neighbors aren’t really about fishing grounds or oil and gas reserves or ancient historical claims. What they’re about is that the Japanese still – still – won’t admit they did anything wrong during the Second World War or during their long colonial rule in Asia.

That’s how the neighbors see it, anyway. And it explains why arguments with China and South Korea over  islands of questionable value have turned into volatile confrontations. Armed ships are conducting rival patrols around the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands, which Japan controls but are claimed by China; Japan and South Korea are in a bitter feud over Dokdo (Takeshima) Island, which South Korea controls but which Japan claims.

(MORE: Japan: A Wave of Patriotism)

Now comes author Thomas U. Berger to explain why Japan is viewed as so unrepentant. Some 20 million people died and millions more were subjugated and oppressed during Japan’s half-century of war and colonial expansion, which ended in 1945.

Cambridge University Press

In a new book, War, Guilt and Politics After World War II, Berger says a complex web of culture, politics, geography and shifting notions of justice have made it more difficult for the Japanese to apologize for past transgressions than other societies. That’s particularly true compared to Germany, whose crimes outstripped even those of Japan, but which has largely reconciled with former victims.

Berger is an associate professor of international relations at Boston University and a frequent traveler to Japan; he is currently lecturing at Tokyo’s Keio University.   I chatted with Berger about his book via email this week. Here are excerpts:

Why did you decide to write this book?

I had done research previously on the impact of historical issues on defense and foreign policy in both Germany and Japan. So when disputes flared up in the 1990s over how Japan was dealing with its past, a number of my friends thought it would be a natural topic for me to look at. I wrote a couple of essays and thought I could spin off a quick book, but it took close to 14 years to get it out.

Why so long? 

As I worked on the topic, I became convinced that political scientists and policy makers do not have a very good handle on what drives the politics of history. I was forced to read a lot of material from different fields to help me make sense of it.

(PHOTOS: China: Island Dispute Spurs Anti-Japan Protests)

Also, on a more personal note, I found myself talking often with my parents about their experiences. My mother lived in Germany during the war, experienced bombings, lost many of her school friends and eventually was driven out of her home. My father came from Vienna, and though a Christian, was of Jewish background and therefore was forced to flee after the Nazis annexed Austria in 1938. Their experiences brought to life for me the reality of the times, and how individuals had to try to deal with the aftermath of the war. I hope it didn’t damage my objectivity – I don’t think that it did. But it did help make it a very personal project on a certain level.

What did you find out? Is Japan as unrepentant about its past as its neighbors claim?

Yes. But it’s not as simple as that.

It’s true, Japan has not been as repentant as Germany or other countries that have faced up to the darker sides of their past. Japan has apologized for waging aggressive war and oppressing its neighbors, but those apologies have fumbling and awkward, and often been undercut by revisionist statements from senior politicians. Japan has offered relatively little compensation to the victims. And to this day there are no nationally sponsored museums or monuments that acknowledge Japanese aggression or atrocities.

But Japan has been far more repentant than is often credited. Prime ministers have repeatedly offered apologies for their country’s misdeeds. Japan has sponsored joint historical research with both South Korea and China. Most Japanese school textbooks deal with issues like the Nanjing massacre and the colonial oppression of Koreans in a fairly open manner. Opinion polls suggests that most Japanese feel their country did things in Asia for which the country should apologize.

So why can’t the Japanese just say, “We were wrong. We’re sorry”?

Apologizing is a costly business for leaders of any country, and requires the investment of a great deal of political capital. Apologies tend to be given when there is a belief that those apologies will be accepted, at least in part, and that dialogue between the two sides will be advanced.  So unless there are strong reasons to do so, most leaders avoid it.

American readers may recall how difficult it has been for us to come to terms with the legacy of slavery and institutionalized racism. Issues like the atomic bombings of Japan and the massacre of insurgents in the Philippines remain difficult for American politicians to address — if they are aware of them as issues at all.

The problem is, in China and Korea there has been very little readiness to accept Japan’s efforts to promote reconciliation, and as a result, those efforts have tended to founder.

So it’s all Japan’s fault?

No, the Koreans and the Chinese bear a large share of the blame. With the Koreans, there has been an unwillingness to help the Japanese find ways of reconciling when the Japanese have tried to do so. This was most apparent with the Asian Women’s Fund, which the Korean government did not support and in fact subverted by establishing a separate, rival support system for the former comfort women. This has been made worse by the tendency of Korean politicians to score cheap points by very publicly taking out their frustrations with Japan — as when President Lee Myung-bak went to Dokdo/Takeshima recently.

There is good reason to question whether the Chinese really want or care about reconciliation.  When Jiang Zemin went to Tokyo in 1998, he hectored the Japanese about the past in ways that prevented the Japanese from offering the kind of written apology that they gave South Korea President Kim Dae-jung that same year.

Chinese leaders have preferred taking a hard line on Japan. This has been especially so when there are divisions in the Chinese leadership, and on a deeper level may have something to do with the Chinese leadership being deeply worried about their legitimacy. While Korean leaders are frequently unpopular, there is strong support for the Korean political system and pride in its democratic institutions, but Chinese leaders need to strike a nationalistic tone in part because there is greater internal skepticism about one-party rule.

Most other countries in Asia seemed to have moved on, haven’t they? Why are things different China and Korea? Was it because the occupations lasted longer, or because more people were killed there?

A lot of people died in Indonesia, Vietnam, and elsewhere, too. But Southeast Asians have been generally willing to forgive the Japanese. And the Japanese were in Taiwan even longer than in Korea, but anti-Japanese attitudes there are weak or non-existent.

To my mind, the key difference is how modern nationalism was created in those countries. Chinese and Korean nationalism is in many ways defined itself against Japan. In contrast, the national identity of most Southeast Asian countries was defined in opposition to their old colonial masters. In Indonesia, the focus was the Dutch, in Malaysia it was the British, and in the Philippines it was the United States. Taiwan is also instructive here, since the pro-democratic movement focused its resentment against domination by mainland China, first under the Nationalists and more recently against the PRC.

O.K., so what’s next? China has new leadership; Shinzo Abe is likely to become the new prime minister of Japan this month; and South Korea is holding new elections as well. Will that help?

I am not too optimistic, at least over the short term – the next five years or so.

There is a genuine chance for an improved relationship between Japan and South Korea. They both have strong common interests. They share many common values. Both are decent, democratic societies. In contrast to the past, the Japanese have come to respect and even admire the Koreans, while the Koreans have won back their self confidence and can afford to be more magnanimous towards their former oppressors.

Unfortunately, there are lots of signs that the Abe administration is coming into office thinking it will be firm but conciliatory with China, but really dump on the Koreans. They appear to be thinking about revoking the Kohno statement on the Comfort Women and may do some other things on historical issues that the Koreans will find highly provocative. This would enrage the Koreans and may lead to their taking counter steps.

With the Chinese, the gap in interests as well as perceptions is too big to allow for the pursuit of reconciliation, and even a more limited strategy of damage control may prove impossible. The new Xi administration shows every sign of wanting to continue to push the Senkaku/Diaoyu issue further, and China may even choose to escalate the pressure in the pring. Since Chinese claims are based on a particular reading of history that is very critical of Japan, there is little or no chance that the two sides will be able to dampen the nationalist passions that are feeding the crisis in the East China Sea.

Hopefully, cooler heads on all sides — perhaps with behind-thescenes help from the United States — can persuade the governments not to escalate the issue to dangerous levels. But the possibility of further riots, diplomatic crises and possibly even clashes involving paramilitary forces around the disputed territories is all too real.