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Impact of apologies on world politics focus of historian's book

by Scott Brinckerhoff - April 20, 2009


Offering and receiving apologies are part of everyday life, but when apologies occur – or don’t – on the international scene, they may trigger a whole new round of friction.

UConn’s Alexis Dudden, an associate professor of history, is studying the forces at work when citizens, politicians, or pressure groups demand that a government apologize for acts that often go back decades.

Her new book, Troubled Apologies Among Japan, Korea, and the United States, looks at the phenomenon of “apology politics” from a northeast Asian perspective.

She uses the case of several tiny islands claimed by both Korea and Japan to illustrate how symbolic issues can stir up historical resentments, add to regional instability, and minimize the potential benefits of diplomacy or apologies.

The uninhabited islands, about 100 kilometers from the mainland, are variously known as Dokdo, Takeshima, or the Liancourt Rocks. Other than hosting a weather station and serving as a rookery, the islands have no special value.

Yet, Dudden says, they are the subject of “quite violent rhetoric between Tokyo and Seoul” because they aggravate pre-World War II memories of Japanese imperialism. The United States has also been dragged into the conflict because of its alliances with both nations.

“War over these islands is unlikely, but an accidental conflagration isn’t,” says Dudden, who speaks, reads, and writes Japanese and Korean.

Five years ago, intense demonstrations over the islands took place in both Korea and Japan. The Korean government, livid, said the Japanese position amounted to “an effective withdrawal of the apologies that Japanese leaders and politicians have made for Japan’s past aggressions and imperialist record.”

Examples abound of the power that apologies exert on international politics. Often, Dudden says, apologies fall short or appear disingenuous, whether it’s the Vatican addressing its role in World War II; South Africa and apartheid; the United States and slavery; or the Irish Republican Army and its violence against civilians.

Germany’s apologies for World War II and the Holocaust are often cited as models of successful, unequivocal apologies, Dudden says, but not everyone agrees with what might be called unintended consequences.

“To this day, free speech in Germany does not extend to a discussion of the Nazi past and the government’s approach to dealing with it,” she says.

Dudden has extensively studied two other World War II apology-related events: Japan’s use of sex slaves, or “comfort women,” for its troops, and the U.S. bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

As many as 200,000 women of Korean and other national origins may have been forced by Japan into sex slavery, but successive governments have never apologized in a way that satisfied the few remaining survivors or their families and advocates.

Alexis Dudden, associate professor of history, outside Wood Hall.
Alexis Dudden, associate professor of history, outside Wood Hall. Photo by Frank Dahlmeyer

Even though a private fund was established that would give $20,000 to each qualified applicant, few took advantage of the offer.

Dudden says the case says a great deal about what constitutes an adequate apology: “The apology only works if the victim accepts it,” she says.

“More than anything else, victims want their stories told, and while compensation probably should be a component of an apology, sincerity, atonement, and acknowledgement of suffering are much more important.”

Sometimes, Dudden adds, “apologies” are cast in such a way as to rewrite history and portray the offending party in a more favorable light.

While no one defends the use of comfort women, many historians do maintain that American use of the atomic bomb on Japan ended the war and saved American lives that would have been lost in an invasion of the country.

Dudden is among historians who dispute that argument, on the grounds that the possibility of an invasion has been used to mask the horror of dropping two atomic bombs.

She says the question of whether an apology is warranted for the U.S. atomic bombings and other cataclysms of history often becomes conveniently sidestepped by focusing on what amounts to mythology – in this case, an invasion that might never have occurred.

The issue of whether to apologize, and how, is not necessarily confined to the parties directly involved. Having assumed responsibilities for the region after World War II, the United States found itself under pressure to apologize or take public positions on several issues, including the internment of Japanese-American citizens on U.S. soil; the comfort women, and the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

On the internment issue, President Reagan signed a Congressional resolution of apology, much to the dismay of then-Vice President George H.W. Bush, who was shot down by a Japanese fighter plane during the war.

The U.S. government, with Dudden’s prodding and counsel, also formally asked the Japanese government to issue a suitable apology to the comfort women and their heirs, despite the anger the move caused on both sides of the political spectrum in Japan, a valued ally.

Much of that anger, Dudden says, stems from the U.S. refusal to apologize for Hiroshima and Nagasaki. When House Speaker Nancy Pelosi joined other lawmakers in laying wreaths at Hiroshima in 2008, Dudden notes, she did not say a word.

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