TROUBLED APOLOGIES AMONG JAPAN, KOREA AND THE UNITED STATES by Alexis Dudden. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008, 167 pp., $40 (cloth)

Alexis Dudden engagingly explores how the nexus of politics, war memory and apology shapes contemporary trilateral relations between Korea, Japan and the United States. She addresses critical questions concerning the meanings of apology for different people and why repentance for the past is so difficult to express and seldom judged sufficient.

In exploring a number of flash points, “Troubled Apologies” explains what is at stake “in the contest to win narrating Northeast Asia’s twentieth century.” The fractious discourse focuses on the disputed islets of Dokdo/Takeshima, botched apologies, “illegal Japan” and U.S. wrongs in Korea and Japan.

Dudden does not concern herself with assessing who is right, although she can be quite withering when it comes to official positions. Rather, her approach is to examine the roots and consequences of these divisive perspectives.

Earlier this year the Japanese government issued guidelines instructing teachers to explain to students that Takeshima is Japanese territory, an assertion hotly disputed by the Korea government. These rocky outcrops are called Dokdo on Korean maps and this territorial dispute has become a festering source of bilateral tension. It did not help that in 2005 Shimane Prefecture declared Feb. 22 “Takeshima Day,” choosing the day in 1905 when the islands were absorbed into the now vanquished and vanished Japanese empire.

Dudden takes us through the claims and counterclaims, urging readers to understand how both sides are guilty of invoking the ruse of history to legitimize their respective claims. In elegant prose brimming with insights and wry wit, she succeeds in “unraveling the decades of myth-making that masquerades as national history and has shaped the respective national identities involved.”

Understanding the ruse of history involves exposing the charades, selective gaze and inconvenient truths that are intrinsic to national narratives. History is not just about the facts; it is a constantly evolving narrative shaped by the shifting present that selects, marginalizes and de-contextualizes what happened. Here we learn why what is ignored, emphasized, made up or rewritten is so crucial to understanding the politics of history.

Dudden’s unsparing gaze penetrates the manner in which apologies have become formulaic mantras of appeasement that “render history an opaque object.” Numbing in their repetition, conferring no dignity on either victim or victimizer, official apologies, she says, actually contribute to contemporary instability because they tend to be vague and deceitful.

She argues that “Japan’s multimillion-dollar denial industry would have far less traction in Japan today were a majority of Japanese convinced that the subject matter of its politicians’ apologies . . . were of crucial importance.” Unlike Germany, Japan has tried to minimize and ignore the state’s history of violence, ensuring that far too many Japanese grow up clueless about why neighbors demand apologies and remain prickly about their shared past.

No issue more vividly demonstrates her point than the abduction controversy with North Korea. Koreans, she notes, can’t comprehend the national hysteria in Japan over the fate of a few dozen abductees when compared to that of the hundreds of thousands of comfort women, forced laborers and other Koreans kidnapped, raped, imprisoned, tortured, killed and fleeced by the Japanese colonial government.

The U.S. has also evaded direct apologies and restitution for specific wrongs it committed around the world. Here we read about several instances in Korea and Japan. The U.S., she argues, is uncomfortable confronting its own record of killing civilian noncombatants and so ignores it or finds refuge in euphemisms such as “collateral damage.”

The flareups of protest in Korea and Japan about the violence and injury inflicted by U.S. troops stationed in their countries draw on deep-seated grievances that extend well beyond the incident of the month. There have been no apologies for either the Tokyo firebombing that claimed upward of 100,000 civilian lives or the nuclear bombings.

In Dudden’s view, “the regressive refusal to deal with the human costs of nuclear warfare has even more dogmatically shaped and sustained America’s narrative of denial.” In September, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi became the highest-ranking incumbent U.S. politician to officially visit the Hiroshima Peace Memorial and lay flowers at the cenotaph, a gesture many Japanese have long been waiting for; they are still waiting for an apology. However, Pelosi’s healing gesture was lost in the media frenzy generated by the abrupt resignation of Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda the previous evening, dissipating its impact on popular perceptions.

Koreans, too, wait impatiently for apologies for a pattern of abuses extending from the massacre at No Gun Ri in 1950 through a succession of U.S.- sponsored authoritarian governments and a lack of accountability for crimes committed by U.S. troops stationed on the Peninsula. The candlelight vigils held in Seoul protesting the lifting of a ban on imports of U.S. beef this year are not just about “mad cows.”

Dudden concludes, “More than sixty years of political apologies and apologetic narratives have woven Japan, Korea and the U.S. together into a sea of stories in which blame and denial masquerade as history.” Expect more of the same.

Jeff Kingston is director of Asian Studies at Temple University, Japan campus.

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