Walter Hamilton. It’s not the apology, stupid!

Aug 17, 2015

We must not let our children, grandchildren, and even further generations to come, who have nothing to do with that war, be predestined to apologize.

This comes from the statement issued during the week by Japan’s Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of the war in the Pacific. It is perhaps unfair to highlight one sentence from a longish document, but, in my reading of it, this accurately summarizes its abiding sentiment.

Abe wants to draw a line under the past. He wants to end the culture of contrition that, he believes, has crimped nationalist sentiment in his own country for a generation and prevented Japan acting to its full and sovereign potential.

Personally, I do not believe anyone can ‘apologize’ for the mistakes of others. To apologize means to take responsibility before the public for one’s own error; it is expected that a correction or an act of restitution will follow. Real apologies exist in the present, when something can be done about the mistake, as opposed to retrospective compensation. The rest is an ex-post facto judgement: approval or regret, disgust or admiration. We may feel our forefathers, former governments, dead Popes or whomever have made mistakes we would not have committed, and wish they had not acted as they did. But we are not they; we are actors operating only within our particular circumstances, milieu and knowledge, not theirs. Apologizing on their behalf, therefore, is mere cant and nonsense.

I say this because for too long Japan, its neighbouring countries, and others who suffered at the hands of the Japanese in the 1930s and 1940s have been fixated on the quality of the apologies post-war leaders have been obliged to utter for the deeds of the past. Every statement, especially on the anniversary of the war’s end, is scrutinized for its ‘grief’, ‘remorse’, ‘regret’, ‘apology’ words, in a fruitless game of semantics, as if this changed anything.

(In his own, much briefer, commemorative speech on the weekend, Emperor Akihito for the first time used the phrase ‘deep remorse’ to express his feelings––well and good, as far as it goes. This liberal-minded emperor is perceived by some to be a counterweight to the bellicose Abe. On such a formal occasion there was never much scope for him to articulate an alternative narrative, but the fact that he broke new ground––when Abe merely re-hoed old ground––is worth mentioning.)

The past rules a line under itself. What matters, the only thing that matters, is the quality of our understanding of history and our ability to admit and learn from the mistakes of the past. On this score, Abe’s statement fails miserably. It provides an apologia for Japan’s actions rather than a nuanced and forthright account of the policies and actions that brought disaster upon Japan and inflicted suffering on millions of others.

The statement was drafted by a committee of ‘experts’ whom Abe appointed, in characteristic manner, to shift from him the responsibility for its particular contents. And yet it is pure Abe in its thesis.

Time and again, the Japanese Prime Minister recounts events leading up to the war in terms of Japan being forced into a corner: threatened with loss of sovereignty by the American/European imperial powers in the 1850s and threatened again with economic ruin by their trade protectionist policies in the 1930s. Japan always acted out of a sense of ‘crisis’, a need for survival. There is some truth in this, but it is not the whole truth.

What this thesis fails to acknowledge is the agency of Japan’s own leaders in planning and executing an imperialist policy from the very start of the nation’s modernization in the second half of the 19th century and the many steps taken to suppress democratic movements inside Japan in the first half of the 20th century. Japan’s ‘manifest destiny’ of imperial aggression in Asia (thence extended to the broader Pacific) was not something it had to invent because the nation was excluded from the benefits of international affairs and commerce––it was an exercise in hegemony intended to ‘perfect’ the colonial empire of the ‘White’ powers.

Abe states: ‘The Japan-Russia War gave encouragement to many people under colonial rule from Asia to Africa.’ I have heard this sort of comment from all sorts of right-wingers in Japan. It is laughable, in the sense that one colonial power, Russia, was simply replaced by another, Japan. Abe cannot talk about the ‘encouragement’ of 1906 unless he is willing, in the same breath, to admit the disillusionment of 1910 (the year Japan annexed Korea) and beyond. The feelings of ‘profound grief’ and ‘eternal, sincere condolences’ expressed on several occasions are empty without an acceptable historical accounting for the events one is ‘grieving’ about.

Abe is forthright when he chooses to be and evasive when it suits him. For instance, we have this about Japan’s sufferings: ‘The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the air raids on Tokyo and other cities, and the ground battles in Okinawa, among others, took a heavy toll among ordinary citizens without mercy.’ The ‘without mercy’ here, the only use of the phrase in the speech, is applied exclusively to the Allies. But when it comes to acknowledging the so-called comfort women, the many mainly Korean women organized into brothels to service the Japanese military, this is his oblique way of addressing the issue: ‘We must never forget that there were women behind the battlefields whose honour and dignity were severely injured.’ The ‘we’––and not ‘I’––of this statement is particularly greasy; Abe requires others to ‘never forget’ what he himself has previously denied ever happened.

In describing the postwar setting in which Japan re-emerged as a great power, Abe makes no acknowledgement of the reforms undertaken during the Allied Occupation––he doesn’t even mention that there was an Occupation (just as he fails to mention Pearl Harbor). He talks about never again resorting to the threat or use of force to resolve conflicts, but omits to say that this principle only came into existence through the 1947 Constitution adopted by Japan under the watchful eye of the Americans. Since Abe considers this document does not represent the will and culture of the Japanese people, and wants it changed, he commits a double hypocrisy by paraphrasing its Article 9.

Australia is referred to several times in the statement, generally in the context of the POW issue. There is acknowledgement of the POWs’ mistreatment, though the main reason they are mentioned is to stress how Japan has been so graciously forgiven by its former enemies. The whole second half of Abe’s statement is about receiving forgiveness and moving on from a position of apology. For every mistake, whether by Japan or its opponents, he offers ways in which Japan has learnt and will act differently in the future. Sounds fine, except, as itemized in this blog, promises built on a shoddy foundation of historical distortions and wishful thinking do not carry much weight.

Forget the ‘apology’ trimmings, feel the cloth.

Walter Hamilton reported on Japan for 11 years for the ABC.



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