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LETTER: The Japanese apology: forgiveness and compensation

From Mr Michael Henry Birch

Sir: The demand for an apology by those who endured great suffering in the hands of the Japanese military during the Second World War deserves everyone's deepest sympathy ("Japanese apology `is not enough'", 12 August). There are, however, two important factors that need to be understood to prevent needless ill-will being created by the specified demand for an apology from the Japanese government as the representative of the nation, and to avoid ultimate frustration for the victims.

The first is that an apology, as an act of contrition, should be followed by forgiveness, which can be taken as a form of absolution for the act of wrongdoing. Absolution has sometimes been seen as licence to go off and do something evil again and, as such, is an indication of lack of faith in the lasting quality of the apology. To expect the guiltless new generation of a nation to apologise for the abominable conduct of some of its military personnel more than half a century ago is now undeservedly humiliating for that nation.

The second and more obvious factor is that there is no nation where some of its subjects, whether civilian or military, have not been directly responsible for or actually committed atrocities in times of war or political strife. Some individuals have been brought to trial and punished in the past, but there appears to be no historical precedent for a whole nation being asked to apologise for the conduct of those of its subjects responsible for crimes against defenceless human beings, and it is questionable whether any government has a clear mandate from its people to make such an apology on their behalf.

To demand anything more than the profound regret recently expressed by the Japanese prime minister can only exacerbate a grievous situation made all the more invidious by the West celebrating the final defeat of that nation by what many consider to have been unnecessarily devastating and morally untenable means.

While, by its very nature, the arena of politics is not given to voluntary acts of contrition, all governments do have the means to allocate a small proportion of their enormous expenditure on defence to provide an acceptable level of compensation for the suffering for which they or their predecessors have in some way been responsible.

It is therefore reasonable to propose that both the Japanese and British governments should accept their measure of responsibility toward the victims and take immediate stops to ensure that such compensation, a tangible and more accessible form of apology, is provided before it is too late.

Yours faithfully,

Michael Henry Birch

Royal Tunbridge Wells,


From Mr Charles Hughes

Sir: Now that we are in the season for apologies, would it not be appropriate for the US government to apologise in turn for the total embargo on oil supplies to Japan in August 1941? If Japan had not entered the war, her oil reserves would have run out some time in 1942. The result would have been economic chaos, and her navy would have been unable to put to sea.

Attempts to negotiate were made by the Japanese prime minister, Konoe, but rejected by the US Secretary of State, Cordell Hull. The Japanese navy ministry view that an attack was essential prevailed. The result was the raid on Pearl Harbour in December 1941.

Yours faithfully,

Charles Hughes

Felixstowe, Suffolk

13 August