Prior to U.S. President Barack Obama’s recent Asian visit, many of his critics back home were already mocking the trip, calling it an “apology tour.”
Still, if traveling to Hiroshima, a city that was devastated by a U.S. atomic bomb in the waning days of World War II, and a stopover in Vietnam for talks to further relations with another one-time enemy nation were not emotionally charged enough, Obama was forced to deal with a more recent ordeal.
He had to address the alleged rape and murder of a 20-year-old Japanese woman by a U.S. base worker and former marine in Okinawa.
“I extended my sincerest condolences and deepest regrets” over the crime committed by Kenneth Franklin Shinzato, a 32-year-old civilian working at the Kadena Air Base, Obama said in a joint news conference with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on the sidelines of the Group of Seven summit in Ise, Mie Prefecture, last week.
But some Americans, including diplomats, said the remarks were tantamount to an “apology.” For example, CNN reported that “Obama apologized for the Okinawa incident” in a breaking news tweet. But in Japan, some in the media highlighted the fact that he did not utter a word of “apology.”
The Japanese media was closely monitoring whether Obama would offer such an apology for the twin atomic bombings that killed more than 210,000 people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki 71 years ago, even after the U.S. president made it clear that he would not do so.
That raises the question: Why do so many people in Japan, including those in the media, dwell so much on a need for an apology?
According to Takeshi Suzuki, a professor at Meiji University’s School of Information and Communication, this is because there is a big cultural difference when it comes to giving apologies.
“There still remains the seppuku (harakiri) culture in Japan. If the head of the state admits responsibility … the Japanese people will forgive (and forget). In Japan, showing remorse is advantageous,” Suzuki said. “Yet in the U.S., they have to consider the legal consequences once they admit accountability.”
In other words, in the United States, there exists a contract society whereby an apology is synonymous with being accountable, admitting fault and taking responsibility, while in Japan, apologies are more emotional for the majority of people.
One high-profile case where this cultural difference came into play was the collision between the Ehime Maru, a fishing boat for trainees, and the nuclear submarine USS Greeneville off Hawaii in 2001, which left nine Japanese dead.
Soon after the accident, President George W. Bush apologized to Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori by phone. Yet Scott Waddle, the commander of the submarine, initially only expressed regret over the incident. This angered some of the family members of those killed, who wanted a more formal and sincere apology.
American linguist Edwin Battistella noted in his book “Sorry About That: The Language of Public Apology” that Waddle said in his own memoir that he had asked to accompany Adm. Thomas Fargo to Japan where he was to apologize for the collision in person, but his request was rejected by the U.S. Navy.
Waddle was only able to make the trip a year later, where he made an apology.
“To the navy, it was more important to maintain control of the situation, and not admit negligence, which could be a basis for the further (legal) claims,” Battistella wrote.
President George Bush also issued a famous mea culpa, when in 1991 he offered a formal apology to Japanese-Americans interned during World War II, in addition to restitution approved by President Ronald Reagan and himself.
Bush did so because its was undeniable that there was government responsibility. President Franklin Roosevelt, through executive order 9066, ordered the measures following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor.
Still, in a recent survey by Kyodo News, 74.7 percent of the respondents said Obama did not need to apologize in Hiroshima, while 18.3 percent said he should have offered one.
Professor Suzuki, who also studies “apologia,” the defense of one’s opinions, positions or actions, categorized Obama’s speech as part of the “transcendence” method, which is used to avoid blame.
“His speech transcended the apology as he offered a higher purpose by advocating for a world without nuclear weapons,” Suzuki said.
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