Japanese apologies

Unremarkable at first glance, this is a photo of a Japanese colleague who serves in the charity org we’re connected with in China. She’s placing flowers at the memorial to Eric Liddell (the “Chariots of Fire” guy) in the Japanese internment camp where he died during the brutal Japanese invasion of China during WWII.

Of the Japanese I’ve met in China, it’s been the three Japanese Christians (two more plus the one pictured, all serving in the same NGO) who’ve gone out of their ways to personally and symbolically apologize for the actions of their country during WWII. On another occasion, an older Japanese couple hosted a special dinner for their Chinese colleagues and language teachers at which they personally and formally apologized on behalf of their nation.

Has anyone else seen or heard of individual Japanese making apologetic gestures in China?
I assume it’s not just Japanese Christians who do this (though with the three I’ve mentioned, their Christianity has a lot to do with it). But I’m also assuming that these kinds of apologies are exceptional, since, as at least one scholar points out, “in Japan there’s almost a dramatic lack of any sense of responsibility.”

I’d love to know more about the dynamics of apology and forgiveness in honour-oriented, Confucian-heritage cultures like China and Japan. I’m also curious about the ways Mainlanders are likely to perceive these types of gestures.

And I wonder: Should Europeans and Americans do the same for the Opium Wars?

More on Eric Liddell and the Japanese invasion:

P.S. – For some info about official Japanese acknowledgment of WWII atrocities in China, see this comment.

6 thoughts on “Japanese apologies”

  1. I find it kind of strange to be apologizing for something your ancestors did. And receiving an apology from someone who didn’t commit the crime wouldn’t give me any real feelings of closure, the people who did the actual atrocities (those still actually living) should be the ones apologizing. I can see however, a reason for apologizing for their countrymen who deny the past, but there shouldn’t be a felt obligation for such an apology by those who do not deny what happened and condemn it as well. I wonder if recent films weren’t released, if there would be any apologies at all, I don’t see the point in any of it, if the Japanese don’t want to officially apologize what is the point in dredging up the past other than to foster hate among the current and future generations.

  2. This is intriguing to me because a similar discussion, about forgiveness, apologies and guilt has been ensuing on a Taoist foum I participate in. It is not resolved (but with some consensus that apologies are made for the benefit of the guilty –essentially forgiving themselves– not the victim). Since Christianity is a minority religion in Japan, it is not surprising to me that your apologizing colleague does this as a Christian.

  3. Yeah, aside from knowing them personally, it makes sense to me that Japanese Christians (assuming their Christianity isn’t superficial) would be working with drastically modified ideas regarding guilt, confession, repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation, and that maybe this makes them more likely to apologize. But I don’t want to assume too much about East Asian cultural resources in this area because I am not that familiar. Since the vast majority of Chinese and Japanese aren’t working with a Christianity-related template for these ideas, I’m curious about how their approaches and understandings differ from these three (atypical) Japanese Christians.

    Apologizing can certainly benefit the guilty psychologically, but in the China-Japan situation it seems the victims assume there would also be a significant benefit for themselves in procuring an apology from Japan. In that general East Asian cultural context, I wonder how an official apology would change the nature, power dynamics and perceived hierarchy of the relationship.

    I get the idea that we personally aren’t the ones who committed the crimes of the Opium Wars, and I think that’s important to point out. But would we feel differently about that point if Germany had never owned up to WWII?

  4. I find most discussions about Germany’s post war apology and Japan’s lack of an apology to be missing the point.I believe that if left alone and independent after WW2 neither of these countries would have done any apologizing. They would have swept past sins under the rug like every other country has done throughout human history. The reason Gemany and Japan made atonement with certain countries is becasue it was in their interests

    Germans apologized and truly owned up to their past because they were occupied by ally powers following the war. Basically they were told to apologize, maybe not directly but by the nature of the occupier/occupied relationship. They apologized to their new masters essentially. The relationship has matured into a real alliance between former enemies.

    Japan was occupied by America and made atonement (under U.S. supervision) for their attack by completely transforming their society to become a peaceful and democratic ally of the U.S. Americans are very satisfied with this result.

    As for China, is it in Japan’s interests to apologize?

    Why should Japan formally apologize to China. There is no reason to. No benefit. If Japan does apologize will they get better treatment from China? Just like most countries in the world they have no real diplomatic relationship with China. China was taken over by dirty communists since 1949 and has been teaching its citizens/prisoners, starting in preschool that all foreigners want to destroy them. What is the point of apologizing to them. Until the Communist party is gone China will have no real friends or allies so there is no point in apologizing.

  5. You bring up some interesting points, but in the example of the three people I mentioned, they are sincerely apologizing on behalf of their country, of their own free will simply because they think it’s the right thing to do. And regardless of Germany’s primary motives or whether or not they had a choice, the template for sin, atonement, confession, repentence, forgiveness exists in the Western cultural psyche in a way it doesn’t in honour-oriented, Confucian-heritage cultures. Which is why I wonder about how those dynamics are different in East Asia. Is there a comparable cultural template for similar situations? What are the alteratives to revenge in Chinese and Japanese cultures?

    Has anyone seen or heard of other Japanese making similar gestures in China? Is it the right thing to do? Would it be right for British or Americans in China to make similar symbolic gestures?

  6. It’s a nice thing for individuals to apologise on behalf of their nation, and the gesture should be appreciated.

    But it is time that Japan recognised its wrong doing during that period and made an official apology. While I don’t think it would make a major impact on China-Japan relations, it would make an enormous difference to some of the Chinese people and their attitude towards the Japanese.

    But face before fact is the way it is in this part of the world, and it’s not likely to change any time soon.

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