A sincere apology touches the human heart in a way that compensation money or realpolitik power cannot.
Apologies are mostly an instrument of interpersonal communication. Transferring it to the state level is not always simple or straightforward. Some even argue that apologies at the state level are not nearly as effective as compensation or important as realpolitik. However, a sincere apology touches the human heart in a way that compensation money or realpolitik power cannot.
While they are certainly not the be-all and end-all of reconciliation, apologies are a unique method to express remorse from one state to another as after all, a state is a collective of humans. Japanese people are constantly confronted with the issue of apology in the case of Japan after World War II, often in comparison to Germany, who many argue have done a more satisfactory job of apologizing. I believe that the subject is a valuable topic to be further explored to promote reconciliation efforts across the globe.
While they are certainly not the be-all and end-all of reconciliation, apologies are a unique method to express remorse from one state to another as after all, a state is a collective of humans.
On May 2005 Germany commemorated the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II with a ceremony that was encapsulated in President Horst Körst’s speech emphasizing responsibility for a war that, in his words, “turned all of Europe into a mass graveyard.” Several months later, Körst and his Polish counterpart, Aleksander Kwasniewski, met in Warsaw to attend together ceremonies commemorating the Nazi Germany invasion of Poland, and lay flowers at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the Heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto.
On October of that same year, the prime minister of Japan, Junichiro Koizumi, visited Japan’s controversial war memorial, the Yasukuni shrine, where there are 14 class A war criminals and 2.46 million war dead enshrined. This resulted in official protests from South Korea and China, and was seen by both countries as a “lack of contrition for its depredation in north and southeast Asia” during World War II.
What explains these radically different outcomes of two nations, Germany and Japan, that both committed atrocities during World War II? Why have some former enemy states established friendly relations while others continue in animosity? One factor that most scholars agree promotes reconciliation is an effective apology. Scholars agree that, while apology on its own cannot bring about full reconciliation, it can, nonetheless, contribute to it.
Scholars analyze the most common requirements for an apology to be effective, there is a lack of literature discussing why a state may issue an effective or ineffective apology. This need is especially critical because research has shown that an ineffective apology does not only not improve relations, but in fact makes relations worse and the two states regress on the path towards reconciliation. The most commonly cited requirements for an effective apology by scholars include that it reflects sincerity and thus a commitment not to repeat the offense, is backed by the populace, and it acknowledges injustice and responsibility.
The memory of a country, that is, the combination of state-sponsored narrative and collective memory, determines whether the country will be able to produce the conditions that lead to an effective apology. Specifically, I argue that the state-sponsored narrative of history and collective memory must both acknowledge their past wrongdoing and the suffering it has caused and be remorseful for it for the state to be capable of issuing an effective apology.
German memory has generally been cohesive throughout its post-war history. both state-sponsored narrative and collective memory repressed the injustices suffered by others and concentrated on their own suffering in the 1950s, it was followed by a surge of frank discussion of the Holocaust and the suffering of others in the 1960s and the Ostpolitik era. In accordance with my argument, there were very few apologies in the Adenauer era when both sets of memories excluded suffering of others and responsibility for it, and the apologies that were issued were very incomplete and ineffective. However, when the state-sponsored narrative and collective memory became both more forthcoming about the injustices they inflicted on others in the next period, effective apologies were issued.
The memory of a country, is, the combination of state-sponsored narrative and collective memory.
The most famous apology in this era was Brandt’s famous Warschauer Kniefall in December 1970, in which Brandt fell to his knees when he visited the memorial for the victims of the Warsaw Ghetto. He later noted, “under the burden of millions of victims of murder, I did what human beings do when speech fails them.” Despite not being a speech, it was an act of acknowledgment of one’s own responsibility for the offenses committed and its sincerity is clear; Although it initially caused much controversy in West Germany, this act of apology was welcomed by the German public years later.
The 1980s were an exception to the parallel developments in German memory; both the state-sponsored narrative and collective memory fluctuated, but collective memory less so. The state-sponsored narrative reverted to de-emphasizing the Holocaust during the first half of the decade, galvanized by the return of the conservative CDU to power. However, after the Bitburg incident  and government realization that they could not afford to treat the Holocaust lightly, state-sponsored narrative and collective memory once again became more accepting of its responsibility and injustices that were incurred and produced one of the most comprehensive and effective apologies in German history, President Richard von Weizsäcker’s speech in front of the Bundestag on May 8, 1985. Weizsäcker’s speech is the most comprehensive, most effective apology in post-war German history, encompassing all three traits of an effective apology without question. By stating, “if we for our part sought to forget what has occurred, instead of remembering it, this would not only be inhuman,” his sincerity and commitment to not let these atrocities occur again is clear. Approval of the people is demonstrated in that more than sixty thousand Germans wrote letters to him, most of them praising him for his speech, and more than two million copies of the speech has appeared in books, articles, cassettes, and videotapes. Finally, in his emblematic line, that “[Germans] need and have the strength to look truth straight in the eye—without embellishment or distortion,” demonstrate his unflinching acknowledgment of the injustices incurred and German responsibility for them.
This harmony and cohesiveness between state-sponsored narrative and collective memory acts as the base from which German leaders continue to issue effective apologies…
For most of the post-war period, Japanese state-sponsored narrative and collective memory have not been congruent. The first decade after the war was the only one in which both state-sponsored narrative and collective memory matched perfectly, and they both centered on Japan as a victim and did not consider its own atrocities. This combination of memory offered no impetus for apology, and thus we see almost no apologies from Japan in this era. In subsequent periods, collective memory steadily expanded to include memories of Japan as an aggressor and its war responsibility. In the years following the first textbook controversy of 1982 state-sponsored narrative showed signs of becoming more apologetic, realizing the importance of war narrative to its foreign relations. These years were the most promising in terms of a forthcoming state-sponsored war narrative, and combined with the collective memory, produced two of the most effective apologies Japan has issued, the Prime Minister Hosokawa’s and Prime Minister Murayama’s apologies of 1993 and 1995, respectively.
…state-sponsored narrative showed signs of becoming more apologetic, realizing the importance of war narrative to its foreign relations.
…state-sponsored narrative showed signs of becoming more apologetic, realizing the importance of war narrative to its foreign relations.
Hosokawa’s apology states, “because of our country’s past colonial rule, residents of the Korean peninsula experienced various forms of unbearable pain and grief, including such things as not being allowed to use their own language in school, being forced to change their names to Japanese style names, and the requisitioning of military comfort women,” acknowledging many more specific injustices incurred than previously, as well as making explicit the agency of these sufferings. This apology was generally received well by both domestic and foreign audiences as a groundbreaking apology, and in response the Korean government decided to stop pursuing compensation for comfort women. This is the first effective apology from Japan, as 1) sincerity and commitment to not repeat the offense, 2) domestic support, 3) acknowledgment of injustices and responsibility are all present, and promoted the reconciliation process greatly.
Two years later, Prime Minister Murayama gave another apology, calling the Japanese acts of aggression “irrefutable facts of history,” and calling for Japan to “eliminate self-righteous nationalism” and expressed his “feelings of deep remorse and state my heartfelt apology.” This is the most comprehensive and effective apology that Japan has issued to date. While conservatives cringed at his statement, his apology was well received domestically, and many of the major newspapers applauded him.
Prime Minister Murayama gave another apology (…),the most comprehensive and effective that Japan has issued to date.
However, conservative backlash was strong, and in recent years state-sponsored narrative of the war has been highly ambiguous, with many inconsistencies. The failure of the government to project a comprehensive, cohesive state-narrative and if anything, attempt to de-emphasize aggression has resulted in not only friction with its Asian neighbors but also disillusionment of the government from its citizens. Even though the collective memory continues to include awareness of Japanese aggression and war responsibility, this lack of consistent state-narrative continues to impede Japan from issuing effective apologies in the current era, and moreover erodes at the progresses in reconciliation that the two effective apologies were able to achieve.
Comparison of the memories of Germany and Japan helps us understand why, as many have argued, Germany has been able to issue more effective apologies than Japan. There are striking differences between the two nations, but also perhaps somewhat surprisingly, a significant number of similarities as well. German and Japanese memories of both categories started out similarly in the first decade after the war, and both states repressed memories of their own actions and instead chose to focus on their own suffering in state-sponsored narrative and collective memory. Both states experienced a surge of increased acceptance of their own aggression and responsibility in the 1970s, especially in collective memory but also in state-sponsored memory. Even further, each state has one apology that is decidedly the most comprehensive: Weizsäcker’s from Germany and Murayama’s from Japan.
Comparison of the memories of Germany and Japan helps us understand why, as many have argued, Germany has been able to issue more effective apologies than Japan.
However, while Japanese state-sponsored narrative continued to be reluctant to include its own aggression in the 1960s and 70s, German state-sponsored narrative became more forthcoming in that same era. When German state-sponsored narrative tried to return to de-emphasizing the Holocaust and its own crimes a decade later, collective memory was able to influence state-sponsored narrative enough that by the end of the decade, German state-sponsored narrative had become apologetic again. This is one of the major differences between Germany and Japan; German collective memory was successful in affecting the state-sponsored narrative to match its own, while Japanese collective memory has been unable to do so. Also, while Japanese state-sponsored narrative had become more apologetic during the 1980s, this narrative received backlash, crucially and lethally, before it had become consolidated as the official, unchanging, governmental view of the war, turning recent state-sponsored narrative less apologetic and more conservative again. On the other hand, German state-sponsored narrative has achieved a stability in which there is no question or debate on the responsibility of Germany for the suffering it inflicted on others; state-sponsored narrative in Germany has reached an equilibrium.
one of the major differences between Germany and Japan is that German collective memory was successful in affecting the state-sponsored narrative to match its own, while Japanese collective memory has been unable to do so.
Moreover, even though both Germany and Japan have been shown through this study to actually have issued effective apologies, comparison between the two countries demonstrate that the degree of effective apology is not the same. This suggests that perhaps there is a gradient within effective apologies, and this, along with the fact that Japan has not continued to issue effective apologies, is why so many consider Germany to have apologized and reconciled successfully while Japan flounders. Weizsäcker’s apology and Murayama’s apology are considered the two representative and comprehensive apologies of the two countries, however, Weizsäcker’s speech is more than five times as long as Murayama’s, and the care and detail he goes into is evident. Similarly, while Japanese state-sponsored narrative has indeed expanded since the immediate post-war years, the occasions it has expanded has been due to external forces, such as normalizing with neighbors, foreign pressure, or diplomatic crises, rather than intrinsically as generally in the case of Germany.
This leads to an important point that the most recent decade for Japan has been the most problematic in terms of the way war narrative has affected foreign policy, even though this decade is not the most unapologetic decade of Japanese state-sponsored narrative. Rather, some government action has reflected a remorseful state-sponsored narrative, while others seem to encourage a state-sponsored narrative that excludes Japanese acts of aggression and responsibility for them. This encourages the possibility that just as an ineffective apology is worse for reconciliation than no apology at all, a somewhat and reluctantly remorseful state-sponsored narrative is worse than a state-sponsored narrative that is not accepting of its own actions at all.
Germany, in contrast, has a very cohesive state-sponsored narrative that through extensive measures including legislature, has institutionalized a stable and well-accepted state-sponsored memory of its own atrocities and has issued effective apologies in the most recent time period.
Apologies are the component of reconciliation that represent our humanity and capacity as a collective of people to work to overcome the past
Reconciliation after traumatic events is difficult. Apologies are only one way through which states strive to achieve reconciliation among many including truth commissions, justice, rational choice, and interpersonal interaction. Yet, as we have seen in the case of Germany, apologies can be extremely charismatic, emblematic, and effective. The image of Willy Brandt kneeling at the Warsaw Ghetto is at once unforgettable and undeniably striking.
Apologies are the component of reconciliation that represent our humanity and capacity as a collective of people to work to overcome the past. An effective apology that reflects sincerity, is backed by the populace, and acknowledges the injustices incurred and responsibility for it can only come about as a result of self-reflection, both at an individual and national level. Such dignified apologies can color the whole discourse of reconciliation and remain imprinted in people’s minds, not merely in the country receiving the apology, but across the globe.