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Monday, March 26, 2001

THE VIEW FROM NEW YORK

Never say you've apologized too much


When Ursula Smith, my publisher friend up in Vermont, wrote to say, "I can't close without offering some (futile) form of apology, as one national to another, for that unfortunate accident off Hawaii," I said there was no need to apologize to me. It was an accident, and I wasn't too clear about the meaning of one national apologizing to another in a situation like this. Besides, having lived in the United States for more than 30 years to savor many facets of its society, I have largely lost the culturally definable sense of nationality.

I told Ursula that what bewildered most people, American and Japanese, must have been the discovery that a submarine built to fight a nuclear war wasn't able to detect what lay 130 meters above it. In fact, when she wrote to me, The New York Times had just carried a cartoon satirizing that aspect of the accident.

So, when my young colleague, Donald Howard, asked if I planned to write about the matter, I said no. When another colleague, Watanabe, asked if I'd noticed that the U.S. media persisted in calling the Ehime Maru a "fishing boat" or a "trawler" when it was in fact a training ship, I was puzzled.

Things started to change when my trade-consultant friend Scott Latham e-mailed me, first, a news summary, then the full text, of the Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen's article, "We've apologized enough to Japan." Cohen, who correctly identified the sunk ship as a "training vessel," was evidently well informed. For one thing, he referred to Japan's "opportunistic politicians," whose presence I, in my inattention, was to learn of only later.

And even though one unexpected thing after another had come to light as events unfolded, Cohen, in the first half of his article, seemed to have a point to make: Japanese demands for apologies seemed unending. But then he turned the turret, so to speak, and accused Japan of "epic hypocrisy," as regards "comfort women" and the Nanjing massacre, asserting that Japan has never apologized for them. Japan has no right to demand apologies, Cohen suggested, especially of the U.S., which "has become the most apologetic of nations."

I don't know if Cohen was the first to turn the turret in the way he did, but Francis Fukuyama, weighing in the next day with "A sorry situation," muddled the picture further by noting that "the Clinton administration raised the art of the cheap apology to a new high." One contrasting bit he tried to draw was patently strange.

"The Japanese more than most people know how to do [a sincere apology] right in their practice of 'seppuku,' " the State Department official turned professor of public policy observed. "You say you're sorry, then take a sword and disembowel yourself in front of the victim." Where did he get this picture? From his childhood books made in America perhaps?

Fukuyama's observation reminded me of The Economist thinking aloud, if that's possible in print, in reviewing Herbert Bix's book, "Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan": "One puzzle is why, if Hirohito believed in 'kokutai' and the spirit of Yamato (ancient Japan), did he not kill himself on surrendering, as his loyal prime minister, Gen. Tojo, tried to do? . . . Under the imperial honor code, suicide would have been the proper course."

The "imperial honor code"? Where in the world did the writer (anonymous, as is customary with that weekly) find such an idea? Will our understandings of other cultures ever attain any level of credibility?

Then there was the inevitable Howard French, the Tokyo bureau chief of The New York Times. Addressing the sinking of the Ehime Maru, he wrote: ". . . the incident, examined more closely, reveals a range of Japanese, not American, problems, from deepening post-Cold War malaise and smoldering resentments of American success to the country's own hypocrisy in coming to terms with its Asian neighbors."

French may be right about "malaise" and "smoldering resentments," but when it comes to the particular "hypocrisy" to which he refers, French is like a broken record, repeating the phrase "coming to terms with" and all the facile nonsense ad nauseam. Japan certainly has its share of those who downplay or refuse to recognize its wartime crimes and such, but it certainly is not their exclusive domain nor is it singular in that regard. That's the point French refuses to get.

In the end, what made me decide to take this matter up here is Mike Barnicle's article in the Houston Chronicle that my colleague Donald forwarded to me. It had the heading "Speaking of apologies, Japan still owes us some."

Barnicle begins with reminiscences of one of his grandmother's children, Gerald, who was killed in the Battle of Midway. He then goes on to quote his friend Charley Sweeney, "the only American pilot who flew both atomic bomb runs over Japan." The point? Japanese leaders should have apologized to all American combatants during the Pacific War but haven't. As to Sweeney, with his role in ending the war, he has the right to point out that the Japanese "have a kind of amnesia when it comes to confronting the reality of what they did during World War II, the Bataan Death March and such.

In this acrimonious muddle, one saving grace was a simple observation of Shoko, my young Japanese friend in New York. Richard Cohen's pronouncement, "We've apologized enough to Japan," reminds her, she said, of the Japanese government's apologies to Korea about "comfort women." The reason is simple, she said: "We've apologized enough" is something you can't say even if that's what you believe is true.

Hiroaki Sato is a translator and essayist who lives in New York.


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