When will the Japanese ever apologize?

Sanne van Oosten

During our journey through Asia we have come across many sites where the Japanese brutally tortured and murdered their Asian counterparts. We went out in search of the concentration camps of my grandparents in Indonesia. We attended a protest held by former comfort women in Seoul Korea, who were forced to be raped repeatedly by Japanese soldiers. And we visited the war memorial of the Massacre of Nanjing, where 300.000 Chinese were slaughtered by the Japanese.

The reason why all of these subjects are still a massive open wound to the people involved is not only because of the tragedy it entailed, but also because Japan has never apologized for what happened. Moreover, they openly deny any guilt and claim to have only done good things to their fellow Asians during their occupations at the Jasukuni-Jinja Museum. Also, a member of the Japanese parliament recently stated that the comfort women were willing prostitutes and are lying about being forced to perform sexual deeds for the Japanese soldiers. Even the Massacre of Nanjing is downplayed as “the incident of Nanjing” at which only a few thousand people died and those were “soldiers dressed up as civilians.”

When asking young people about those times they simply state: “we don’t talk about that anymore.” Nevertheless, it is still talked about at great lengths by the victims’ children and grandchildren. Why has Japan never apologized? There are a number of political explanations to be given for this lack of apologetic behavior on the part of the Japanese. Please note that these are not excuses, just political explanations.

To properly explain this historical conundrum I need to go back to the nineteenth century, 1868 when Japan’s Meiji Restoration took place. Before the Meiji restoration, Japan had sealed itself from the outside world for 213 years, allowing only a few Dutch merchants to live on a small island off the coast of Nagasaki to trade with Japan. They feared that if they didn’t close themselves off from the rest of the world, most notably the West, they would be cast into a regime of humiliating colonialism some unwanted Western power, as the West had been doing all over Asia at that time.

In 1868 they decided to turn this all around under immense pressure from Western powers to open their borders. They decided that if they couldn’t beat the West, they would join them. They rapidly opened their country up to foreign trade thus instigating a rapid speed of economic development on Japanese ground. Meanwhile, they still saw Asian countries as backward nations, with which they didn’t want any association.

Even though they didn’t want to be associated with the rest of Asia, they were more than fine with colonizing Asia. They deemed the rest of Asia to be vastly inferior to them and therefore worthy of occupation. An important lesson they had learned from the European colonizers during the centuries before. Starting with the Sino-Japanese war of 1894-5, the Japanese forced themselves upon Chinese land using China’s Korean intervention as an excuse. For China, this marked most severe blow during what they later referred to as the century of humiliation. The Chinese lost and Japan slowly started to take over large parts of the country. The same happened to Korea and Taiwan. After the United States were part of the war after the attack on Pearl Harbor Southeast Asia was captured and horrifying atrocities took place all over Asia.

After the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were dropped, Japan surrendered. In the end, the Japanese paid dearly at the hands of the United States, with huge casualties, the Tokyo trials, the confiscation of overseas assets and the American occupation. After the war they were extremely apologetic towards the United States, but less so to the rest of Asia. Despite the fact that they had recently been in war with the United States, soon after the war the United States became Japan’s closest ally.

Still, they showed no remorse towards the Asian countries which they had hurt to a much higher extent than the Americans. Take the Nanjing Massacre where 300.000 people were said to be murdered and numerous repetitions on a smaller scale all across Asia. They still show a begrudging attitude towards the rest of Asia, which is typical of post-Meiji Japan. An apology could have been forced on to them by the Americans after the war, but as the relations between Communist China and Capitalist America were at their coldest in the decades after the war, no such apology was reinforced.

Meanwhile, time has gone on. Fast forward to 2012. The United States are losing their grip on Japan and Asia in general while China is becoming a force to reckon with in the geopolitical world we live in. China is becoming richer and this wealth is subsequently reflected in international political power. With the rise of China and the standstill of Japan, I think the time is going to come for Japan to finally apologize. It might not be a sincere apology, try to imagine what it might sound like to China: since you are all rich and powerful now we thought it might be time to tell you how much we are sorry for what happened when you were just not so awesome as you are now. Nevertheless, Japan is showing absolutely no signs of planning to any kind of apology, which might be the biggest tactical error in their history.

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