To date, the establishment of good relations between Japan and its closest geographical neighbours, including China and the two Koreas, remains a mirage due to deep-seated mistrust stemming from Tokyo’s reluctance to extend official apology to victims of its military atrocities, mass civilian massacres, and abuses against prisoners of war (POWs) during the shadows of the cold war conflict (Lind, 2009).
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Although Japan extended an unprecedented written apology to South Korea in 1998 long after the death of Emperor Hirohito, who received credit for progressing the war atrocities (Lam, 2002), few political experts in Sino-Japan relations remain convinced that Japanese war apologies will heal the rift between the neighbours (Dong-Choon, 2010).
This paper looks into the history of Japanese war apologies, and also attempts to evaluate why these apologies have been unable to make the intended impact. Japanese war apologies are deeply rooted in the atrocities committed by Japan during cold war conflict, including the nation’s militaristic past against its neighbours, brutal occupation and colonisation (Lam, 2002).
The role of Emperor Hirohito in committing and/or abetting the atrocities cannot escape mention owing to the fact that it was during his time as Japan’s ruler that thousands of people, including innocent civilians, lost their lives under Japanese aggression. The role of the United States in the massacres has been revisited by scholars as it is thought that America showed complicity by covering up Hirohito’s war crimes to win a strong ally in the fight against communism (Ogawa, 2000).
Indeed, immediately after the atrocities, Japan never apologised to its neighbours and Emperor Hirohito continued to enjoy the trappings of power. It should be recalled that Germany apologised for its atrocities immediately after the Second World War, but Japan never tendered its apologies even after committing so many atrocities during the Second World War, the Japan war of 1950-1953, and during its colonisation of Korea between 1905 and 1945 (Dudden, 2006).
Flowing from the above, it is conceivable to argue that Japanese war apologies that began to filter through in the 1990s were an attempt to redress the historical atrocities committed by Japan to its immediate neighbours (Lam, 2002). In one particular atrocity committed in the Korea in July 1950, an estimated 1,800 prisoners of Daejon Prison were rounded up by Japanese police and shot dead at close range, with the perpetrators ensuring that there were no survivors (Yonehama, 2010).
In yet another horrifying atrocity, thousands of women were captured throughout Japan’s colonies and thereafter, forcibly recruited as sex slaves for the Japanese military (Dudden, 2006). The 1937 Nanking massacre which saw the slaughter, mutilation and rape of anywhere between 100,000 and 350,000 Chinese by Japanese Imperial Army remains a dark spot in the history of Japan, although to date the largely conservative Japanese elite denies the massacre took place (Ogawa, 2000).
Immediately after the death of Emperor Hirohito in 1989, Japanese leaders realised that the country needed to redress the atrocities for the country to gain a foothold in the region and enhance bilateral and multilateral relations with its frightened neighbours (Dong-Choon, 2010).
Though several apologies have been disseminated ever since to cover for the war atrocities, it was Prime Minister Obuchi Keizo who in 1998 extended an unprecedented written apology to Seoul when South Korea’s President Kim Dae Jung came visiting (Lam, 2000).
However, as noted in the literature, Prime Minister Obuchi refused to extend similar apologies to Chinese President Jiang Zemin when he visited Tokyo in the following month, implying that the apologies that were intended to resolve the historical animosity between Japan and its neighbours had political connotations (Lind, 2009).
As analytically projected by Lam (2000), Prime Minister Obuchi made an official apology to Seoul and ignored Beijing owing to “President Kim Dae Jung’s reconciliatory attitude toward the apology problem, and [Japan’s] perception that South Korea was not a geopolitical rival and potential threat to Japan” (p. 32).
Perhaps such an orientation partly explains why the Japanese war apologies are widely considered as having little impact in improving relations between Japan and its neighbours. While many citizens in Japan buy into the idea that the war apologies are genuine and sincere and therefore, the wronged nations should accept them and move on (Lind, 2009).
With others even suggesting that the Japanese experienced more atrocities due to the atomic bombs in Nagasaki and Hiroshima (Honda, 2000), the popular perception is that these apologies have been a failure. For Japan to be considered more favourably by its neighbours, in my view, it should have apologised for its atrocities long before the death of Emperor Hirohito.
Additionally, there is no way that the apologies can be considered as sincere and well-intended if the Japanese conservative elite and some major textbooks used in school continue to deny the existence of major atrocities such as the Nanking Massacre (Lam, 2000). Indeed, many Japanese leaders continue to pay tribute to Emperor Hirohito in his resting shrine as a war-time hero rather than a perpetrator.
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Long-term solutions to the mistrust and hostilities existing in the region will be achieved if Japan takes the first and most important step of officially recognising that atrocities were committed against its neighbours and then offering substantial reparations to cover for the atrocities before tendering formal apologies.
Dong-Choon, K. (2010). The long road toward truth and reconciliation: Unwavering attempts to achieve justice on South Korea. Critical Asian Studies, 42(4), 525-552.
Dudden, A. (2006). Japan’s political apologies and the right to history. USJP Occasional Paper 06-01. Web.
Honda, M.M. (2000). Japan’s war crimes: Has justice been served? East Asia: An International Quarterly, 18(3), 27-35.
Lam, P.E. (2002). The apology issue: Japan’s differing approaches towards China and South Korea. American Asian Review, 20(3), 31-54.
Lind, J. (2009). Apologies in international politics. Security Studies, 18(3), 517-556.
Ogawa, S. (2000). The difficulty of apology: Japan’s memory with memory and guilt. Harvard International Review, 22(3), 42-46.
Yonehama, L. (2010). Politicising Justice: Post-cold war redress and the truth and reconciliation commission. Critical Asian Studies, 42(4), 653-671.