The politics of Kan’s apology

“I would like to face history with sincerity,” said Japanese Prime Minister Kan Naoto in a statement issued on 10 August, the 100th anniversary of Japan’s annexation of Korea. “I would like to have courage to squarely confront the facts of history and humility to accept them, as well as to be honest to reflect upon the errors of our own.”
In what is now being referred to as the Kan Statement, the prime minister acknowledged the suffering caused by Japan’s “colonial rule” and apologized to the Republic of Korea, and also pledged to return the remains of Koreans as well as cultural artifacts removed to Japan during the annexation.
Cynics will undoubtedly be quick to note that this is only the latest in a lengthy list of apologies issued by Japanese leaders for Imperial Japan’s behavior — and one need not be a cynic to ask what value one more apology will have for Japan’s relationship with South Korea or its standing in the region more generally. Japan’s conservative ideologues, never shy in their opposition to what they see as “masochistic” behavior on the part of Japan’s leaders, have vociferously opposed the statement. In a lengthy editorial published the day after the statement, the Sankei Shimbun, a revisionist right-wing daily, criticized the government for “imposing” a “one-sided view of history,” denigrating the achievements of Meiji Japan in the process. The paper stressed that it is necessary to balance the “shadow” of Japanese rule with the “light,” which came in the form of education and railroads.
In its coverage, Sankei also raised questions about the procedure by which Kan secured cabinet approval for his statement, claiming that Kan foisted the statement on his cabinet and the ruling DPJ, over the objections of party members.
Two days after the statement an “emergency citizens’ meeting” met in central Tokyo to demand the withdrawal of the apology. Headed by Odamura Shirō, a leading conservative figure who was involved in opposition to the infamous “comfort women” resolution passed by the US House of Representatives in 2007, the meeting passed a resolution calling for a bilateral relationship based not on feelings of moral superiority for one party and guilt for the other and questioning the legitimacy of prime ministerial apologies. (Of course, the resolution also called attention to the role played by Japan in triggering Korea’s economic development.)
The revisionist right’s reaction to Kan’s statement has less to do with South Korea, however, and more to do with the right’s program for Japan. Its reaction is, above all, narcissistic: what does Japan lose by apologizing to those harmed by Japanese imperialism? As Kan himself noted, there is nothing cowardly about frankly acknowledging one’s transgressions without hedging or equivocating. And while the list of apologies to Japan’s neighbors is lengthy, it is precisely because conservatives question the legitimacy of those apologies — most notably the Murayama statement — that prime ministers are compelled to keep issuing new ones. The revisionist right believes that a “proper” and “truthful” historical perspective are critical for national pride, which it believes to have been corroded by the left-wing academics and media personalities and pusillanimous politicians. While they claim to be interested only in historical fact, their selective reading of history belies a blatantly opportunistic approach to Japan’s imperial past that belittles the claims of Japan’s victims and presents a blatantly self-serving (and at least in this telling contradictory) narrative in which Japan was not a colonizer, and even if it was, it was a benevolent one that hastened the demise of those wicked European empires.
Japan’s revisionist right, of course, is not the only political group that propagates a self-serving account of its past that explains away inconvenient enormities (cf. the United States and Hiroshima, among other examples). But the revisionist right’s attitude has persistently placed a stumbling block in the path of better relations with South Korea and China. As Kan makes clear in his statement, a good relationship with South Korea is critical in the years to come. While I do not doubt that Kan’s apology is sincere, it also comes with strategic benefits, as President Lee Myung-bak appears no less interested in building a close relationship with Japan. Since taking power last year, the DPJ has steadfastly worked to build closer bilateral relationships throughout the region. This latest apology is but another step in that program.
And so the battle over Kan’s apology pits two very different world views against each other. For Kan and members of his cabinet, Japan’s future is in Asia, which means maintaining partnerships with important countries in the region. If apologizing to South Korea again strengthens Japan’s position and clears the way to closer and deeper exchanges not just with Koreans but other Asian peoples, it is an exceedingly small price to pay. For Japan’s revisionists, any unambiguous admission of Japan’s guilt is evidence of “masochism” and an indication that Japan’s leaders are simply not up to the challenge of competing with China for predominance in Asia. If Kan’s view is strategic (although, again, not only strategic), the revisionist right is absolutist, and were it embraced by those in power it would result in an ignoble and ultimately self-defeating isolation for Japan in the region.
Of course, there is actually little risk of the revisionist agenda being implemented. Even Abe Shinzō, the most unabashedly revisionist conservative prime minister Japan has had in recent years, recognized the value of strong relationships with both South Korea and China and was willing to make concessions on the history issue, whatever his personal beliefs. Since Abe’s downfall in 2007 the revisionists have been increasingly marginalized in Japanese politics, their influence virtually non-existent under the DPJ despite having sympathizers within the party. Indeed, their influence may be inversely proportional to the amount of noise they are capable of generating through various media outlets.
As Jun Okumura suggests, it is now up to South Korea to accept Kan’s apology in good faith. That, of course, points to the central problem with apologies between nations: no matter how sincere the apology (and the acceptance of the apology), it is difficult for one leader to bind the hands of his successors. Nevertheless, by building a closer bilateral relationship, Kan and Lee can do their part to minimize the harm that can be done by political actors in both countries who wish to exploit history for political gain.

6 thoughts on “The politics of Kan’s apology

  1. My guess is that Japan and Korea will not truly become friends until military/geopolitical necessity compels them to do so. After all, that's what made Greece and Turkey, Germany and France, Britain and France, etc. become friends.With the U.S.'s relative decline, I predict that Japan and Korea will both need to seek out regional security arrangements to balance China. This will provide a recent history of cooperation that will replace the colonial period in people's minds in both countries…


  2. nissan5

    Ikeda Nobuo, an economist-cum-commentator, sites \”Offspring of Empire\” by Carter J. Eckert as an counter argument for the Kan's statement. you have read the book, what is your take on Ikeda's assumption?The book seems authoritative as far as I can see from Amazon's synopsis.The reason I am asking you this question is because although I am more inclined to take side with your view of the actual nature of Japan's colonisation of Korea, I have to admit sometimes Ikeda's sort of claim does ring true to me.


  3. Anonymous

    $800 million back in 1965 was a lot of money + the $364 million in compensation for the 1.03 million Koreans conscripted into the workforce and the military during the colonial period (the same Koreans who tortured the Allied POW in Philippines etc during WWII). That money is what built Korea into what it is today. No need for any further apologies from Japan. I often wonder what Korea would look like today if the Japanese hadn’t colonized Korea and whether Koreans would be speaking Korean or Chinese.


  4. I appreciate the citation, but the thing about symbolic politics is that symbols transcend arguments based on reason. To a Korean or any other victim of conquest (including Japanese conservatives, who still chafe at Japan's constitution being written by the United States), facts about development or political order do not balance out the suffering and humiliation of defeat. And the question one must always ask is, at what cost? Absent Japanese annexation, would Korea never have developed?Were I Korean, I would care not a whit that Japan had introduced some institutions and infrastructure that contributed to development later.One can debate the point at which one nation no longer has any claims on the country that made it suffer, but for Japanese to insist continuously that Japanese rule wasn't all bad because some time later Korea developed is belittling.


  5. You mentioned that the problem with leaders is that they can't bind the hands of their successors. For individual apologies, I whole-heartedly agree – and most Koreans/Chinese would agree as well. This is why many, especially supporters of comfort women, call for a DIET resolution as it is binding for the successors. But I don't see a Diet resolution in the near future – not until the political system in Japan is fixed that is.


  6. The most on point argument I see there is \”no matter how sincere the apology (and the acceptance of the apology), it is difficult for one leader to bind the hands of his successors.\” What was it, 1993 when Kono apologized to Comfort Women, only to have Abe practically deny their existence years later?I wouldn't mind this back and forth so much on the political front if we could at least have some assurance the next generation would learn from their parents and grandparents. Unfortunately, in Japan's case, with the revisionist textbooks (and hearing firsthand from the kids ignorance of what happened in the 1930's), I just don't see anything changing. Apologize one year, insult them beyond measure the next. Granted, I highly doubt relations between Japan and Korea will ever be seen as \”tense\”, but apologies like these and acknowledging every past atrocity (from both sides) is necessary for the future of Asia. As Noah said, I too forsee some cooperation between Japan and the ROK to balance China.


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