Published on YaleGlobal Online Magazine (
Home > Abe and Blair: Political Apologies, East and West

Abe and Blair: Political Apologies, East and West

Globalized communications ensure that national wrongdoings do not go forgotten. Official apologies for past wrongs are strategic affairs, crafted for public scrutiny. Journalist Joji Sakurai explores the cultural nuances of recent public apologies by Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s for sex slavery involving Korean women associated with World War II and by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair for reliance on misleading intelligence for the 2003 invasion of Iraq: “Political calculation was seen as a factor in both cases – Abe sensing the benefits of closer ties with South Korea at a time of strategic peril, timely given Pyongyang’s nuclear test just days later, and the former British prime minister hoping that saying sorry might help him avoid legal difficulty ahead of publication of the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq War.” The essay compares the audience reactions, political calculations, formality, and sense of responsibility and sincerity behind the apologies. In the end, the most successful apologies strive for better relations between aggrieved parties and and assurances the behavior won’t be repeated. – YaleGlobal

Abe and Blair: Political Apologies, East and West

Globalized demands for justice elicit national apologies: Abe’s for WWII sex slavery, Blair’s for Iraq War intelligence
Joji Sakurai
YaleGlobal, 26 January 2016
Atoning for the past: Japanese Premier Shinzo Abe apologizes for wartime sex slavery, top; former British Prime Minister Tony Blair apologizes for faulty intelligence used for the 2003 Iraq invasion

MURAYAMA, JAPAN: Apologies are never easy. Negotiating and uttering a national apology about war-time activities is especially challenging and sensitive, charged with strategic implications. And thanks to the profusion of digital media, questionable actions of the past are ever present in public view, crying out for justice and apology.

As apologies come they also invite comparison, and two recent high-profile apologies highlight differences between East and West: On the cusp of the New Year, Japan’s hawkish Prime Minister Shinzo Abe issued a surprising, yet highly specific apology for  sex slavery in Korea before and during World War II. Earlier in October, during a television interview, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair offered a less official and partial apology, not for the Iraq war, but for relying on misleading information before the 2003 invasion and misunderstanding the consequences of regime change.

Political calculation was seen as a factor in both cases – Abe sensing the benefits of closer ties with South Korea at a time of strategic peril, timely given Pyongyang’s nuclear test just days later, and the former British prime minister hoping that saying sorry might help him avoid legal difficulty ahead of publication of the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq War.

But there was a key difference in how the gestures were received by their target audiences: Few in Asia bothered to ask whether Abe, the man, really “meant it” when he apologized over Japan forcing Korean women into wartime brothels, and Tokyo also pledged $8.3 million in official funds for surviving victims. Whereas in Britain, the question of how much Blair personally felt regret over Iraq was central to the apology’s reception. Blair’s perceived insincerity – many called his words mere “spin” – may have rendered the gesture meaningless. By contrast, if asked about Abe’s personal feelings in offering owabi, among Japan’s strongest words for apology, to South Korean President Park Geun-hye, many Asians might be tempted to respond that, of course, the hard-line nationalist didn’t mean it.

Political calculation was seen as a factor in the recent apologies by Abe and Blair.

Yet such a response doesn’t make his gesture less significant. The formal, and not the personal, nature of the event is paramount here. Taiwan and the Philippines offered cautious welcome, and China’s reaction was “wait-and-see,” as opposed to outright rejection, which could be seen as a sign of progress. Most importantly, the apology yielded immediate impact – Abe and Park picked up the phone after the January 6 North Korean nuclear test, pledging to work together over the threat.

When a Japanese prime minister apologizes over World War II, the gesture is ritualized and choreographed. It doesn’t matter whether the leader is a good one or bad, believer or heretic, but, just that he is officially qualified to carry out the task. Abe is the symbolic lightning rod for collective contrition and also, critically, collective shame. This is why apologies are both easier in Japan, and harder. Wartime apologies, according to blood laws, cast shame upon the entire “house” – in fact, the word “owabi” contains the ideogram for “household.” And for Abe’s apology, house or family means country. The crucial point: Japanese acceptance of shame is cast not so much upon oneself or one’s generation, but upon ancestors who were active participants in the war. And for many Japanese, especially older ones, such shame is unacceptable. The Japanese traditionally revere their ancestors, and a butsudan, a family Buddhist altar where incense is lit in prayer for departed loved ones, is still a common feature for Japanese homes.

For both East and West, apologizing is
a means of bringing offenders back into
the social fold.

In both East and West, apologizing is a means of bringing the offender back into the social fold. But in his book Mea Culpa, sociologist Nicholas Tavuchis helps illuminate a key difference: “It is only by personally acknowledging ultimate responsibility, expressing genuine sorrow and regret, and pledging henceforth (implicitly or explicitly) to abide by the rules, that the offender simultaneously recalls and is re-called to that which binds.” This Western emphasis on the personal nature of apology has far less hold in Eastern cultures.

A January 10 interview for Abe with Japanese national broadcaster NHK was deeply revealing in this respect. When asked about the “significance” of his apology, the Japanese leader cited neither closer ties with South Korea nor the obvious matter of seeking to heal the pain of former sex slaves. The significance, he said, lay in the fact that the two sides agreed the apology to be “final and irrevocable.” That is, Tokyo would never have to apologize again. Abe’s apology was a matter of official business, a concession in a settling of scores, with no particular relevance to his personal vantage point. And oddly enough, for Korea, the success in wresting these words of apology from a conservative hawk may carry greater significance than receiving them from a liberal dove; the apology itself becomes the extraction of a price. Many Japanese could not help but wonder, as one person asked in watching the news, did Abe win or lose?

Abe’s own attitudes toward the war are intimately tied to his own family history. His grandfather, former Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, was charged with Class A war crimes although not convicted. This paradoxically means that, while Abe may not “mean it” when he apologized over comfort women, it’s entirely possible that the words were just as costly, perhaps more so, since there was no catharsis of the sort accompanying sincere regret.

It’s not only in the political domain, but also the personal, that one can find differences between East and West in perceptions of apology. In the West, when one half of a couple feels aggrieved, an apology is obviously useful to setting affairs right. It’s usually part of the process of reconciliation, largely taken care of by time, with resentment continuing to fester until the original offense is forgotten. The apology, or lack of it, is then part of the equation of how long ill feelings last. In Japan, by contrast, and while the process may vary depending on individuals and circumstances, the apology is itself often the key objective. Ayamare! Apologize! – an aggrieved party may demand of a perceived offender. The relationship can remain frozen for an extraordinarily long time over a strikingly trivial matter, until one proffers the magic word: Gomenasai! I’m sorry!

Japan famously makes a distinction between tatemae, façade, and honne, true feeling.

Suddenly, the cloud is lifted, and all is well again. One word, and life returns to normal. It is the act perhaps more than the perceived sincerity that matters.

Japan famously makes a distinction between tatemae, façade, and honne, true feeling. Blair’s apology – which when parsed becomes more of an apologia in the Socratic sense, that is, a justification – reveals that the concept is not unique to Japan. One goes about life in the West navigating the same conundrum of needing to disguise the truth for the sake of social acceptability, or in Blair’s case, political expediency.

In the West, there is an unresolved tension between knowing that everybody lies and expecting everybody to tell the truth. In Asia, there is a little more realism in how people take the dynamics of tatemae and honne for granted.

And yet honne matters, too, evident in the magnificent handshake between Japanese Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka and Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai in 1972, sealing diplomatic ties, as well as the warm handshake between Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and South Korea’s President Park after the two sides concluded the agreement on sex slaves.

Deep down, the two politicians may well be poles apart in their personal perceptions of Japan’s responsibility over so-called “comfort women.” But each displayed genuine human feeling in the hope of building a better future together – the key goal in political apologies.

Joji Sakurai is a journalist and essayist based in Piran, Slovenia. His work has appeared in the Financial Times, New Statesman,, Oxford Today, the International New York Times and other publications.

Rights:Copyright © 2016 YaleGlobal and the MacMillan Center

Comments on this Article

29 January 2016
"Abe sensing the benefits of closer ties with South Korea at a time of strategic peril." The truth is that Park had been sending signals of intending to improve relations. She had reasons to back down; her hawkish attitude did not take her nowhere, on the contrary to an increased level of international suspicion on Japan, which she intended, she found herself more and more becoming the target of international puzzlement and annoyance; South Korean economic circles have been imploring her to ameriolate tension and to ask Japan for swapping of the currencies as the foreign reserves in the Korean national coffer have been dwindling as its economy has been exorbitantly dependent on Chinese growth; her approval ratings have not gone up in spite of her repeated anti-Japanese rhetoric.
"Abe and Park picked up the phone," but in spite of Park's visits to Beijing and Xi Jinping's visit to Seoul she could not contact her Chinese fiance just when she needed him most after the North Korean latest nuclear experiment.
Kish. Abe's grandfather, perhpaps ought not to be designated a class A war criminal, because he was not found guilty. Why he was arrested was because the United States, before the Tokyo International Tribunal, did not know who did what, what decisions had been made by whom, and who was resonsible to which decisions, etc., so they started their job by arresting every member of the Tojo cabinet. They even went so far as to send Foreign Minister Shigenori Togo (not Tojo) into prison.
Tojo resigned in July 1944. He was simply put on the list of retired generals and officers. When did Hitler resign? When did Germans put him on the list of retired lunatics? Kish played a very important role in getting rid of Tojo.
The Suzuki cabinet was formed in April 1945. Shigenori Togo was picked up as Foreing Minister. People like Joseph Grew, the last US ambassador to pre-war Japan, knew at once from the line-up that it was the cabinet to lead Japan to surrender. Tojo (not Togo) said, "This is the end. This is our Badoglio cabinet." When did Germany have a cabinet and Hitler say in a mournful tone, "This is the end. This is our Badoglio cabinet."
Togo (not Tojo) was anti-German and pro-American. War with the United States was not a foregone conclusion, and so he was fully determined to do his best and utmost to avoid a tragedy in the Pacifid. I said in one of my five comments on Burnett/War Drums in Asia: Back to the European Future, that then-ex-ambassador to London Yoshida told Grew everything that was going on within the Japanese government. He was in cahoots with Togo and Shidehara. (Shidehara was known for his internationalist diplomacy in pre-war Japan.) The Tokyo Tribunal sentenced him to twenty years' imprisonment. What a fair justice!
South Korean have disseminated giagantic lies like "twenty hundred thousand Korean women, mostly virgins, were abducted and forced to work as comfort women. All of them, except about forty who fotunately survived, were murdered when Japan surrendered. The Japanese wanted to destroy evidences."
All these fantastic stories started with a Japanese, Seiji Yosida (SY). He said in 1982 that he and his men kidnapped young Korean women from Jeju-do* and sent them to brothels. Later when he was questioned by specialists, he confessed he had lied. Still later he said to a Japanese weekly that telling lies were necessary and that was what mass media were doing. He wrote a book. A Japanese went to the Japanese book company to ask details. An editor said the book was fiction, declining to discuss it. (*Jeju-do is a small island of South Korea. About thirty thousand islanders, including children and women, were massacred by the South Korean army and police. Read, for instance, Sonfa Oh, Getting Over It!: Why Korea Needs to Stop Bashing Japan. Oh was born in Jeju-do. She is now a naturalized Japanese citizen and teaches at a Japanese university.)
Asahi Shinbun, one of the leading Japanese newpapers, reported SY's story, which attracted wide international attention. About thirty years later, or in August 2014, the newspaper apologetically admitted that it found what SY said not founded on facts.
Prof. Auer of Vanderbilt University met with a group of South Koreans, all coming from intellectual and well-to-do families, a few years ago. The Koreans were all surprised and dismayed to know from him that there were Japanese comfort women too; they had believedt that they were Korean.
There were about twenty thousand comfort women who did business with Japanese soldiers. About forty percent or eight thousand were Japanese and about twenty percent or four thousand were Korean. They were paid money. The Korean women, stranded on Pacific islands, were transported to Okinaw after Japan's surrender. They found new customers there. The new customers mostly spoke English.
At the time of the Korean War, it is estimated, there were at least fifty thousand Korean comfort women who engaged in prostitution with Korean soldiers and United Nations' soldiers. There were a considerable number of them who did not receive payment; they were literally slaves. Each of them was sent to the front in an empty oil drum; you could not say you were sending a hundred comfort women; you could say you were sending a hundred oil drums. perhaps filled with oil.
Many have protested to the South Korean governmet that they have not got any apologies and compensationary money. The government has kept hushed; mass media have hardly reported it.
The Korean-Japanese relations are bad with no prospect of much improvement, not because of comfort women, Yasukuni Shirine, or school histrory textbooks issues. They are bad principally because of the historical fact that "The Koreans in the early Yi dyansty adopted Confucianism wiith such enthusiasm that their value system and social practices were restructured along Chinese lines more fully than ever may have become more uniformly and fully permeated by Confucian ideas than China was itself...The Koeans also developed a very literal but sincere devotion to Confucian principles and an almost fanatical adherence to Confucian rituals (Edwin O. Reischauer, from East Asia: Tradition and Transformation.)"
-Yoshimichi Moriyama , No Improvement Likely