Sorry seems to be the hardest word

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The Independent Online
Japan, like the past, is a foreign country: they do things differently there. So when Japan is asked to reflect on its own past, one can expect things to become rather complicated. All year the issue of an apology for the country's wartime invasions and atrocities has divided ministers, journalists and veterans. Tense battle lines have been drawn up between apologisers and apologists; with archetypal Japanese politeness, politicians have explained how sorry they are that there is nothing to be sorry for. It has been a confusing, frustrating and ridiculous spectacle.

At last, Tomiichi Murayama, the Japanese prime minister, seems to have managed it. In the draft of a statement to be delivered on Tuesday, the anniversary of Japan's surrender, he expresses "acute remorse" for the great damage and pain inflicted on Asians through Japan's colonial rule and wartime aggression. The mayor of Hiroshima made a similar statement last week when he apologised "for the unbearable suffering that Japanese colonial domination and war inflicted on so many people".

But this week the floor has been taken by another man, Mr Murayama's brand new education minister, Yoshinobu Shimamura. At his debut press conference, he wondered aloud whether "it is wise of Japan to continue to make an apology for apology's sake", and even whether the country had really been guilty of aggression in the first place. His reasoning was worrying, given his new portfolio. "This is an era when most people know nothing about the war", he pointed out, rather shockingly for an education minister. The South Korean and Chinese governments expressed angry indignation at his lack of education and Mr Shimamura did the only decent thing. He apologised for being unapologetic.

Actually, there are several good reasons for being suspicious of the idea of collective, national apology. In speaking of something as monstrous as the Rape of Nanking or the starving to death of prisoners-of-war, words are inevitably inadequate; a focus on apology, rather than atonement, diminishes atrocities and renders them thinkable. The second argument is that contrition is an individual, human emotion, which collective creatures such as governments cannot, by their nature, possess. But the best reason of all is so self-evident as to sound almost silly: Japan should not apologise for the past because, very simply, it is not sorry.

Japan is not sorry. Individual Japanese are, in their tens of millions: their reaction to the French nuclear tests, and the anniversaries of the bombings of Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, show how deeply, and with what good reasons, they loathe the memory of war and fear its resurgence. But Japan is a country where consensus is everything. Mr Murayama may have pulled a rabbit out of the hat at the last moment (in May, when a similar motion was put before the Japanese Diet, he threatened to resign if he did not get his way), but the absurd squabbles of the last few months, and the elevation of naifs like Mr Shimamura, prove beyond question that as a nation, as a body-politic, Japan is not ready to say sorry. To give an apology under these circumstances is as hypocritical as it is to accept it.

In fact there has been a good deal of hypocrisy in foreign attitudes to the 50th anniversary. The whole issue of an apology is, in large part, a red herring, a code for much deeper and more ambiguous themes in Japan's relations with the rest of the world. At their core is not the question of contrition, but responsibility. No one who has thought about it seriously can conceive of Japan ever again taking up arms against the countries that defeated it. But there is none the less a unique, and only half-acknowledged, unease about the country and its international role in the world.

Japan possesses the second-largest economy in the world. Since the great empires of the 19th century, no country has grown so powerful, so fast, and so unexpectedly. Yet Japan is not as other economic superpowers, and, in the absence of easy explanations, the rest of the world assumes the worst. Its consumers remain puzzlingly resistant to the attractions of American cars; the economy must therefore be closed. Its politics are opaque and impenetrable; they must therefore be corrupt and undemocratic. Japan appears reluctant to apologise for the war; might it not, deep down, be planning another one?

Why should this be? In part, the brooding suspicion is caused by envy. Japan's success story has been simply too golden. The calls for an apology, an acknowledgement of past baseness and wrongdoing, mask a very human desire to knock some of the shine off that achievement. If Japan had become no more than a moderately successful country, they would not be nearly so shrill.

But they also distract attention from a difficult fact: that Japan's baffling, muddled international relations are to a great extent the product of its American victors. Many of the contradictions in Japanese society and politics can be traced back to a 25-year period between the end of the war and the last indefinite renewal of the US-Japan Security Treaty in 1970. The famous "Peace" Constitution of 1946 for instance, which renounces "land, sea, and air forces", was an American invention. Five years later, with Communism lurching down the Korean peninsula, an unarmed Japan suddenly seemed like a very dangerous idea, and the notoriously euphemistic "Self Defence Forces" were established, now the second-richest army on earth. The lop-sided political system also owes a lot to the attentions of the American CIA, which programmatically undermined the Japanese left-wing during the same period. And the survival of the Emperor, around whom the scarier elements of the Japanese right wheel and flutter, was decreed by the post-war US Occupation.

If Japan has failed to find an international role it is little wonder, and no words of contrition will change Japan's fundamentally ambiguous position. Mr Murayama's statement will make it harder to articulate, but the underlying unease will still be there. Better to understand its causes than to expect the wand of apology to magic it all away.