A belated but welcome apology

The USS Greeneville, a massive nuclear submarine, accidently rammed and sank the Ehime Maru, a Japanese fisheries training vessel, off Hawaii on Feb. 9, 2001, killing nine. This week, nearly two years later, the Greeneville’s former captain, retired Cmdr. Scott Waddle, traveled to Japan to apologize in person to the survivors and the bereaved families.

Some family members and a vocal minority whose views have been widely reported overseas wondered this week why Mr. Waddle waited so long. It is a fair question, but there are reasonable answers. On balance, his visit — which obviously took a great deal of courage — was both welcome and necessary. It should help heal wounds sustained by everyone involved in this painful affair: the survivors, the victims’ families, Mr. Waddle and his family and the U.S. and Japanese governments, whose ties were strained by the incident.

This is how it should be. The sinking of the Ehime Maru was, after all, an accident. A result of gross negligence, certainly — for which Mr. Waddle was stripped of his command and formally reprimanded by a U.S. military court of inquiry — but an accident nonetheless, not an act of malice or hostility. Furthermore, it is obvious from everything Mr. Waddle has said and done since the day of the sinking that the experience has been nothing less than traumatic for him. His words both before and during this week’s emotional visit leave no room to doubt the sincerity of his remorse.

Over the past 22 months, two things in particular have made it difficult for the survivors and the families of Japan’s dead — four teenage boys, two teachers and three crew members — to forgive the Americans, whom Mr. Waddle represents, and to move on with their lives. One was the feeling on the part of many Japanese that the former captain was given an almost insultingly inadequate punishment. Although the reprimand he received effectively ended Mr. Waddle’s military career, he was permitted to retire with an honorable discharge and a full pension. However, the U.S. Navy’s thorough investigation of the accident and its diligence in raising the Ehime Maru and recovering eight of the nine victims’ bodies have gone a long way toward soothing that raw nerve.

The other hindrance to a resolution of tensions was the delay — to some inexplicable — in Mr. Waddle’s coming to Japan to apologize personally for his role in the accident. As the months went by, the feeling grew that it might even be better if he didn’t come at all, which is doubtless why many of the survivors and the victims’ families refused to meet with Mr. Waddle in Uwajima last weekend. “If he really wanted to apologize, he would have come long ago,” the father of one survivor reportedly said.

It is true that the captain might have done better to ignore official and legal advice to the contrary and come earlier — ideally as soon as he was discharged from the navy in October of last year. At the very least, he could have done a better job this week of explaining the long, damaging delay to those who were troubled by it. In matters as sensitive as this, perception is everything, and it has been hard to avoid the perception that Mr. Waddle dallied for another 14 months out of fear of liability, both his own and that of the U.S. Navy, which has been negotiating a settlement with the survivors and families.

But the point now, surely, is that he did keep his word, he did come, and his behavior while he was here was exemplary. Although he was cold-shouldered by some of those he had hoped to meet, he expressed understanding of their reluctance to reopen old wounds and accepted criticisms with quite remarkable forbearance. Those who did meet with him are likely to find that they do not regret it. It is much easier to forgive a flesh-and-blood person than a demonized abstraction, such as Mr. Waddle had clearly become for many people. And it is forgiveness, not festering hatred, that is the prerequisite of healing, as any psychiatrist will tell you.

“I believe this visit is an honorable thing,” Mr. Waddle said this week, “and this is an honorable culture. They will recognize the purpose of the visit.” If by “they” he meant not only the families but the Japanese people as a whole, we believe that is true. The ill will generated by this unfortunate incident had been subsiding in any case, thanks to the efforts of both governments and the unifying effect of the events of Sept. 11, 2001. But the last missing element had to be supplied at the personal level, by the captain, to those he had hurt. We think that is what Mr. Waddle came here to do — late, perhaps, but that is infinitely better than never. His gesture is appreciated.