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The Burden of Saying Sorry

Prepared by: Carin Zissis
March 14, 2007


Japanese Premier Shinzo Abe drew international reproach recently for disputing that his country's military coerced young women into sexual enslavement during Japan's occupation of China and the Korean peninsula. The controversy also raised questions about the importance of saying sorry, a gesture that can smooth diplomatic waters but can also open the door to claims for legal compensation. Abe's remarks came shortly after U.S. Rep. Michael M. Honda (D-CA) proposed a bill in January demanding that Tokyo apologize and accept “historical responsibility” for the Japanese military's role in the abuse of “comfort women.” That is the term for the roughly 200,000 mostly Korean and Chinese women pressed into providing sex to Japanese soldiers during wartime.

As part of a Japanese trend to paint the country's history in a softer light, members of Abe's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) have demanded a review of a 1993 statement by Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono in which the government extended “its sincere apologies and remorse” for playing a role in the recruitment of the women. Kono's statement was never ratified by Japan's parliament, calling into question its weight as an official apology. The LDP previously launched a campaign leading to the removal of references to comfort women (Japan Times) in most Japanese junior high textbooks.

Even if Honda's non-binding resolution would hold no legal sway in Tokyo, it has already contributed to public relations troubles for Abe. When the prime minister said there was “no evidence” of the military's involvement in coercion, the international backlash forced the increasingly unpopular Abe to repeat that he has no intention of rewording the Kono Statement (Guardian). Meanwhile, despite an acknowledgment from Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte during his recent trip to Tokyo of apologies from Abe's two predecessors on the comfort women issue, Honda's bill continues to make its way through Congress and will likely pass in the Democrat-controlled House.

U.S. demands for a Japanese accountability draw accusations that America is throwing stones from a glass house. Although the U.S. Congress passed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 apologizing for World War II internment of Japanese Americans, Washington has resisted saying sorry for its own history of slavery. The United States is not alone in its reluctance: British Prime Minister Tony Blair, in a November 2006 article for one of England's leading black newspapers New Nation, called the transatlantic slave trade “profoundly shameful” and acknowledged his country's role in the triangular trade between Africa and the Americas. But Blair fell short of apologizing, prompting a recent march calling for an apology on the bicentennial of Britain's slavery ban (Independent).

The issue of official apologies can be a costly one. The U.S. act apologizing for internment camps offered each internee approximately $20,000 in compensation, setting aside $1.2 billion overall. Blair's decision to share remorse rather than explicitly apologize serves to avoid lawsuits and reparations for Britain's role in the slave trade. Virginia, which in February became the first U.S. state to pass a resolution expressing regret for past support of slavery, failed to deliver an outright apology (USA Today) over fears that doing so would have opened the door to reparation demands.

Japan also has avoided state-sponsored compensation to the former sex slaves. In a Wall Street Journal Op-Ed, CFR's Noah Feldman and Harvard Law School's Jeannie Suk explain that Abe's denial results in “ongoing harm” because it prevents official reparations to victims. Japan created a private fund, which expires this month, to compensate former sex slaves as a means to avoid offering official reparation. Few of the former comfort women chose to access the funds.

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