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Shinzo Abe Apology

How To Express Remorse Without Apologizing

It's an old joke, told many times over, but worth repeating:

An American goes to Italy to study opera. By dint of hard work, connections, and extravagant good luck, he is invited to sing at the fabled La Scala Opera House. After he finishes his aria, to his astonishment, there is huge applause and thunderous calls for an encore. He obliges again, sings his heart out, basking in his newly found glory. Again, there is a thunderous call for an encore.�� He sings it again. More applause, even more insistent calls for an encore. After the ninth encore call, the singer, now exhausted, and struggling to hit his notes, looks up, with confused exultation: "I am so deeply honored, but... I do not know if I can sing it many times do you need me to sing it?"

A voice from the audience responds, sharply, "Until you get it right!".

This in a nutshell, is the dilemma of Abe's non-apology apologies. Shinzo Abe, the Japanese prime minister, has "apologized" on several occasions regarding Japanese atrocities leading up to and during World War II. To some accounts, he has expressed profound remorse in multiple ways, on multiple occasions, to multiple audiences. But none of these seem to have satisfied his critics.

His latest statement, on the 70th anniversary of the Japanese surrender of WWII, was highly awaited and scrutinized. And despite the formulaic nostrums, obligatory incantations, sotto voce slogans, and limpid eyes, his statement, weighed in the balance against his actions—revisionism, deception, denialism, and unreconstructed militarism—was found deeply wanting.

South Korea, China, and other countries of Asia—want an encore—until he gets it right. Here's why: apologies are simple affairs; even very young children know that they consist of, at minimum, at least several of the following components:

  1. Recognition: Clear acknowledgement of the facts (and their effects): recognition of what happened, what is being apologized for.
  2. Responsibility: Taking responsibility for acts perpetrated and harms inflicted.
  3. Remorse: Expression of contrition or remorse.
  4. Reparation: Redress, reparation, or compensation of some sort, where possible.
  5. Reassurance: Reassurance or promise not to repeat the same actions/behaviors.

Specific to Japan’s case is one last critical element:

6. Ratification (Kakugi Kettei): All previous apologies, have not been considered official, including the Kono statement. A sincere, official apology would involve a statement approved in the Japanese Diet or ratified by cabinet decision.

Abe's apology deliberately falls short on almost all of these points. Taken one by one, this becomes apparent.

Acknowledgement of the Facts:

Abe refuses to acknowledge the facts, and the facts are these: colonial aggression, colonial exploitation, war of aggression/invasion, crimes against the peace, war crimes, crimes against humanity: mass enslavement….

Abe refuses to acknowledge the facts, and the facts are these: colonial aggression, colonial exploitation, war of aggression/invasion, crimes against the peace, war crimes, crimes against humanity: mass enslavement, mass rape, mass murder, massacres, torture, terror, medical experimentation on humans, biological and chemical warfare, and of course, organized military sexual trafficking and enslavement on a scale unparalleled in modern history.

This is the short list.

But Abe does more than refuse to name or acknowledge these facts: he actively seeks to deny or erase them. He and his appointees have agitated for textbook revision; he has spearheaded denial of military aggression; he has denied military involvement in sexual trafficking of “comfort women”, denied the Nanjing Massacre; tarred comfort women as prostitutes; he has tried to lobby a US textbook publisher into removing references to the comfort women; and everywhere he and his cronies have actively sought to erase, rewrite, and whitewash history.

Members of his government or allied organizations have bullied, intimidated, and baited municipalities in the US to take down or prevent comfort women memorials. With his cabinet secretary, he has challenged and undermined previous apologies. He has sent his ambassador to the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women, and tried to make her recant her report on comfort women. He has challenged a congressional resolution on comfort women. He has directed his government to “step up a strategic campaign of international opinion” of whitewashing Japanese war crimes. He serves as special advisor the ultra-right wing Nippon Kaigi, which seeks to revise history, revise the constitution, and reconstitute the monarchy and Japan’s former imperial glory. The list goes on.

Taking responsibility for the facts:

Abe's non-apology apologies have always been marked by the masterful use of the passive voice—“lives were lost”, "people were victimized", “the dignity and honor of many women were severely injured”, “numerous innocent citizens suffered and fell victim to battles”. All these phrases lack agentive construction. Rarely in his slippery speeches does he attribute the Japanese army, government, administration, or empire as the subject or agent of these evils.

Paradigmatic of this tendency are his statements about the comfort women: “I am deeply pained to think about the comfort women who experienced immeasurable pain and suffering as a result of victimization due to human trafficking” This accords with his other statements and actions, noted above, where he has insistently denied that the comfort women were administered or coerced by the Japanese military into sexual slavery, arguing that they were voluntary prostitutes. Global shaming has taught him not to repeat such bald-faced lies in public, and so he chooses the weaponized passive construction as the key vector of his mendacity.

Occasionally, when Japan is mentioned as the subject, these sentences are intermediated, cut up, distanced, collaged:

“Japan took the wrong course and advanced along the road to war. [cut to]

On the 70th anniversary of the end of the war, I bow my head deeply before the souls of all those who perished both at home and abroad”

This is politics as nouvelle vague cinema, breathless, dramatic jump cuts in narrative, leaving the viewer’s imagination—or outrage-- to fill in the gaps.

Other times, responsibility is evaded or diffused by appeals to justifiable reactions to historical circumstances: Japan was pushed into a corner by the other great powers, and Japan "attempted to overcome its diplomatic and economic deadlock through the use of force”. This echoes, the revisionist LDP line, that Japan was not the instigator of a war of aggression, but struggling forcefully for self-existence or self-defense by “challenging” the oppressive status quo.

Many cultures can be allusive and indirect, and certain languages ("null-subject languages") allow the subject to be dropped when agency is understood, but Abe's language is a vapid agglomeration of responsibility-shirking Haiku, a mendacious wind blowing through empty braying consonants: action happens, phenomena occur, destiny unfolds, but nowhere—as the historical subject vanishes into revisionist mists-- is there an agent/perpetrator to be found.

Former comfort woman Yong Soo Lee touches the face of the Comfort Women memorial in Glendale, California's Central Park.

Former comfort woman Yong Soo Lee touches the face of the Comfort Women memorial in Glendale, California's Central Park.

Expression of contrition or remorse

Abe excels in this arena: he expresses "deep sorrow", "sadness" with studied, gloomy, basset hound weariness:

“Even now, I find myself speechless and my heart is rent with the utmost grief.”

You can hear the glissandi violins in the background, sense the moist, clenched handkerchiefs, the tremulous lip, and the tight knot in the throat. Unfortunately, because of refusal to acknowledge facts, and take responsibility, it's unclear exactly what the contrition or emotion is about.

When he expresses his “feelings of profound grief “ and “eternal, sincere condolences” it's not clear if he's regretting the mass murder, rape, enslavement of civilians by the Japanese Imperial Army, or the misfortune that befell invading Japanese troops (forced, according to him, reluctantly into a war by the Western powers, and losing lives “in countries that fought against Japan”). His feelings are untethered to realities, but are simply a large affective broth into which all human woes can be dunked, softened, massed, and equalized.

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When he talks about being “deeply pained to think about the comfort women”, it’s unclear whether what’s painful is the suffering of the comfort women, or being forced to think about them.

When he states “we must never forget that there were women behind the battlefields whose honor and dignity were severely injured” (or, "armed conflicts have always made women suffer the most”), it's unclear if he's referring to the suffering or violation of comfort women—as expected—or Japanese war widows, or some other gendered oppression or injury.

Like a method actor "emoting", it's unclear what the much ado is about, whether the affect is related to the presumptive story at hand, or whether some internal emotional substitution is happening, that the audience is encouraged project upon. This is because the language is slippery, vague, amorphous. This linguistic ambiguity, the crafty, blank screens of words, is deliberate.

The actions, however, are crystal clear: bullying the UN to recant on comfort women, sending delegations far and wide to take down comfort women memorials, charging his cabinet minister to investigate and revise former apologies, purging textbooks, intimidating publishers, rehabilitating Class A War Criminals, and packing your cabinet with far right revisionists, and most importantly, taking the special step of issuing a Cabinet Decision (Kakugi Kettei) stating that the 1993 Kono Apology was not a Cabinet Decision, voiding and overruling any official force or impact of the Kono Statement.

In the “apology sandwich”, the "contrition statement", is usually the meat of the apology, sometimes equated with the apology itself. However, an apology requires the firm matrix of specificity, credibility and responsibility to be presentable: a soupy, soggy, maudlin contrition statement is untouchable, unpresentable, unconsumable by itself. Supported with weak or doubtful statements, when held up for public consumption, the psychodramatic bathos soaks right through, tears the sorry sandwich apart, mess abounds, requiring further clean up, and yes, more apologies.


In an apology for injury, there is always a demand to be made whole, and if that cannot be fully achieved, some sort of reparation or compensation is expected. Abe's government has categorically refused reparation, claiming that all claims for reparation, for example, between South Korea and Japan were settled in 1965 Normalization Treaty, which settled all claims for reparation between the two governments.

While technically true, what's invidious about this claim is that

  • there are vast swathes of injustice that were never touched upon or discussed in this treaty—most notably reparation for comfort women, and
  • this treaty was signed by an illegitimate puppet dictatorship, a cohort of Japan-friendly former Japanese collaborators, which
  • due to its corruption and illegitimacy, most actual victims received a pittance, or nothing, and,
  • the treaty was acquiesced to, against massive popular opposition, only by the unleashing of a massive torrent of terror and torture in South Korea.

That the Abe government claims as conclusive, binding, legitimate, and comprehensive, its agreement with the former Japanese collaborator government, helmed by the psychopathic Japanophile, Park Chung Hee, (former counterinsurgency officer in the rolling atrocity machine of the Japanese Imperial Kwangtung Army), is telling. Historical legitimation in the balance, with the heavy finger of the former imperial servant pressing down on the Japanese side of the scale, does nothing to bind, render, or advance justice, and everyone in East Asia is aware of this.

Regarding reparations to comfort women, the only reparation mechanism formally put into place, was a private charity foundation, the Asian Woman’s Fund, constructed to avoid the appearance of official redress. The Japanese government needs to step out of its fascist jodhpurs, put on its adult pants and own up to its atrocities, and make good; acknowledging the shortcomings of the Japan-Korea normalization treaty would be a place to start; making official reparations to the comfort women would be a positive step forward.

Promise not to repeat the same actions/behaviors

"I won't do it again, I promise", is an oft-appended and expected conclusion to an apology. Abe's logic is quite different. Abe instead promises not to apologize again: “We must not let our children, grandchildren, and even further generations to come, who have nothing to do with that war, be predestined to apologize.” This aligns with rightwing views that to continually apologize is masochistic and self-defeating, and that ultimately there is nothing to apologize for.

This is where Abe’s anti-apology swerves hard right and bares its fangs.

“My dear colleagues, we support the “rebalancing” by the U.S. in order to enhance the peace and security of the Asia-Pacific region. And I will state clearly. We will support the U.S. effort first, last, and throughout.”

“These enhanced legislative foundations should make the cooperation between the U.S. military and Japan's Self Defense Forces even stronger, and the alliance still more solid, providing credible deterrence for the peace in the region.”

Or more succinctly:

“We must fortify the U.S.-Japan alliance. That is our responsibility. In Japan we are working hard to enhance the legislative foundations for our security. Once in place, Japan will be much more able to provide a seamless response for all levels of crisis.”

These are ominous words for anyone tracking the bellicose developments in the pacific: the former ruthless imperial power (that invaded China) agrees to support and coordinate military action with the present imperial power in its rough contention with China, obsessed with encircling and containing it in its pivot to Asia.

Far from “not doing again”, the Abe administration is in the final stages of (unconstitutionally, according to scholars) undermining its own article 9 of its Peace Constitution. This is the “legislative foundation” he is referring to. The administration has already expanded its military budget to the largest amount in its history, created a new cabinet level department of defense, and signed bilateral agreements upgrading the Japan-US Military “Defense Cooperation Guidelines”, enabling it to act as global sidekick for any US-led aggression anywhere in the world, including the western pacific. The revision of the Peace Constitution, against massive popular opposition, thus constitutes the final move in preparation for pro-active aggression and war.

Allusions to upholding a global order, “a rules-based system”, “rule of law”, “proactive peace” etc. are coded signals for pretextually taking China out to the woodshed, should the US request or require it, Japan having unfinished business dating at least back to the Hideyoshi invasions of 1592.

Here’s what’s at stake, what we really “need to engrave in our hearts”: the pretextual mines of conflict have already been sown, the guns raised and pointed, the bullets loaded, chambered, hair-triggered. Everyone in Asia can see transparently the integrated "Grand Strategy" of the Pacific Pivot, which includes:

  • Base construction (especially Jeju Island and Henoko), recommissioning, upgrading, “lily-padding” & up-armoring bases (with missile defense systems, X-band radar, littoral combat ships, 5th generation fighters) for encirclement and domination of littoral waters, sea lanes, and combat space.
  • Bilateral, Trilateral, Quadrilateral, & Multi-lateral military coordination, military exercises, and intelligence sharing agreements to prepare and rehearse conflict.
  • ASB (AirSea Battle)/JAM-GC; the integrated military doctrine to degrade, defeat, and destroy Chinese defensive military capacity.
  • TPP (The Transpacific Partnership): the 12 country economic arm of the pivot
  • Information warfare, historical revisionism, and rhetorical escalation.

The last is the most important: it creates the terrain and justification for the rest. Abe’s non-apology apologies are carrying water for this. That’s why the apology matters to China, Korea, and the rest of Asia: Abe needs to give war a rest, and peace a chance. He needs to really understand the horror of war, and stop using neo-imperialist doublespeak to escalate into conflict. He needs stop the revisionism, ratify the Kono statement, and build relations with his neighbors. And above all, he needs to apologize, sincerely, honestly, unequivocally, and for once, get it right. War and Peace in the Pacific lie in the balance.

K.J. Noh