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Has Japan offered an apology for its war crimes of the 20th century?

"There has never been a Japanese Prime Minister to fall on his knees in an Asian capital and ask for forgiveness as Federal German Chancellor Willy Brandt did at the site of the Warsaw ghetto in 1971." Robert M. Orr, Jr., At 50 Years End: The Legacy of War in Germany and Japan, January 22, 1996

In 2000, Germany created a Foundation, aptly titled "Remembrance, Responsibility and Future," to make prompt compensation to millions of force laborers most of whom worked under inhumane conditions during the Nazi era. With the enactment of legislation and in this and numerous ways, Germany expressed its remorse and wish for atonement. The world, in return, accepted Germany's apology for WW II atrocities. Has Japan acted similarly?

The Personal Apologies of Japanese Prime Ministers

Japan's official position is stated in a letter to the Hong Kong Legislative Council by Mr. Shuhei Takahashi, the Acting Consul-General of Japan : "It is a misconception to say that Japan has either not apologized or has done so reluctantly." In fact, Japan claims it has apologized repeatedly, citing as a prime example, the apology Prime Minister Murayama issued on the 50th anniversary of the Asia-Pacific War that is based on a Cabinet decision. An examination of this apology shows various use of terms such as "Japan", "we", and "I", in the Prime Minister's Statement. Specifically the apology was rendered by "I", i.e. Prime Minister Murayama, while "Japan" acknowledged the facts of history.

Resistance to an Official Apology in Japan

Prime Minister Murayama's apology was offered on the same day that eight of his cabinet ministers paid homage at the Yasukuni Shrine (see also Yasukuni outline and welcome pages), where the executed Japanese Class A war criminals of the Asia-Pacific War were enshrined, and in the same year that the Japanese Diet passed a "No War Resolution" that did not include an apology. (See commentary on the resolution by Hajime Takano and journal article by Prof. John Dower.) Therefore while human rights activists welcome the apologies of high ranking governmental officials, they maintain these apologies remain inadequate as a substitute for a formal and unequivocal national apology.

Personal Apologies Are Inadequate Substitutes for an Official Apology

Were these apologies considered adequate, there would be no perennial debate of whether an official national apology is due. It is instructive to compare the responses of Japan to Germany, who is responsible for the Jewish Holocaust of WW II. Since the late sixties, Germany was not called on to apologize as the German postwar generation is eager to remember, to learn and to prevent recurrence of similar genocides.

Worldwide Demands for An Official Apology from Japan

Whereas in the case of Japan, worldwide demands for an apology and compensation persist. On January 12th, 2000, the Legislative Council of Hong Kong adopted a motion that demands an apology among other things from Japan. Although British Prime Minister Tony Blair said Japan has apologized enough, hundreds of British POWs and civilians demonstrated, whistled the "Colonel Bogey" theme song from the movie March on the River Kwai and turned their backs to Emperor Akihito along the procession route in 1997. Members of the Dutch Japanese Honorary Debt Foundation protested Emperor Akihito's visit in May of 2000. They continue to demonstrate in front of the Japanese Embassy every month and are filing lawsuits at the Tokyo District Court for compensation.

U. S. State and Congressional Resolutions Urging the Same

In the United States, a congressional resolution that asks Japan to apologize and make compensations to victims of its WW II atrocities is continually being re-introduced. In the 105th Congress of 1997-1998, the resolution, introduced as HCR 126, gained the most bipartisan support with over 80 Republicans and Democrats signing on as congressional co-sponsors. These measures, however, were never voted on by Congress since none of them moved past the initial committee(s) to which they were assigned. Procedurally, in order for a bill to be voted on on the floor of the House, it must receive a recommendation from the committee to which it is assigned. HCR 126 never received the required recommendation from its assigned committee.

Undaunted by Congress's failure to act, Californians under the leadership of Assemblyman Mike Honda, a Japanese American, introduced AJR 27 (see full text) in the California State Legislature in 1999. This measure, modeled after HCR 126, and citing the numerous war crimes Japan committed in the Asia-Pacific War, asks Japan to apologize and urges State Department and the US Congress to demand the same. Since then similar resolutions were introduced in other state legislatures.

Reactions of Japanese to Worldwide Demand for Apology

Rather than taking a hard look at its past, Japan's ultra-nationalists' reflexive response to any popular demands for an official apology has been to counterattack. Fukada Yusuke, a novelist, commented on the Dutch government's demand for an apology during Emperor Akihito's 2000 visit to the Netherlands, by pointing out that the Dutch colonial rule ranks as one of the two most abusive of human rights governments in world history. The progressive forces in Japan, however, have sided with world opinion that Japan should apologize regardless of whether other states have or have not done so. Other responses range from denial of responsibility, distortion or whitewashing of history, or simple silence about Japan's responsibilities. The recent controversy over the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology's approval of revisionist texts is simply a logical extension of these sentiments.

Apology Without Compensation: A Hypocritical Proposition

Hence a perception gap exists between Japan and the rest of the world. While Japan considers itself to have apologized repeatedly, human rights activists and victims of its past atrocities charge that it has not offered an unambiguous and acceptable apology. According to the latter, had Japan sincerely accepted responsibility for its wartime atrocities, it would have offered an apology that is accompanied by, among other things, timely compensations and reparations. Had Japan wish to atone for its past it would have enacted legislation similar in spirit to the Federal Compensation Act and Federal Repayment Act of Germany or to the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 in which the US government apologized and made compensation for the internment of Japanese Americans during WW II.

The Content of Sincerity: An Apology on the 50th Anniversary of the Treaty

Thus human rights activists and victims see the 50th anniversary of the San Francisco Peace Treaty as a particularly propitious occasion for Japan to show the world the sincere acceptance of its wartime responsibility. They urge Japan to make the commemoration truly memorable by initiating appropriate measures for atonement that include an official and unambiguous apology.

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All text and images copyright 2001 Global Alliance for Preserving the History of WWII in Asia. Last edit: 20010726

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