President Lee Myung-bak’s recent demand that the Japanese emperor formally apologize prior to a future visit has been considered belligerent by vocal Japanese commentators. And yet the emperor needs to stand up and do the right thing, if only for the overall welfare of the Japanese.
While Japanese right-wing extremists often
attract media attention, most Japanese are eager to put Japan’s
differences with its neighbors behind them. In fact, most Japanese are
shocked when they realize the latent antipathy the rest of Asia still
holds toward them. This shock comes from most Japanese possessing
friendly sentiments toward the world in general and towards Asia in
I have repeatedly witnessed Japanese individuals and groups sincerely
express their remorse on behalf of their country to Koreans – even if
they were born after World War II. Last week, some 1200 Japanese women
publicly apologized for Japan’s past sexual slavery.
most Japanese may not feel compelled to make overt apologies to Koreans
or anyone else, I dare say most are willing to put a past generation’s
sins behind them, even if it means that someone of authority displays
the courage to stand up and do the right thing.
There is a precedent. The current emperor’s father broke ranks in 1945
and asked the Japanese people to “bear the unbearable” in accepting
Shortly after MacArthur arrived in Tokyo,
Hirohito presented himself to the American general-in-chief, taking full
personal responsibility for all that Japan had done.
Asking his son to do something less courageous is not out of line. I
suspect that he may be willing to do such a thing. Though the emperor is
officially the head of Shinto, he was tutored and greatly influenced by
two Quaker women after World War II, most notably by Elizabeth Gray
Vining with whom he emotionally bonded. The present emperor has been
greatly influenced by Western and even pacifist values that place a
premium on understanding and respecting others different than oneself.
given all of this, one may ask what the hold up has been after all
these years? The problem has not been with the average Japanese. Even
Tokyo politicians are not truly liable. The problem is with a small
number of people who work in the national ministries.
Japan’s modern-day mandarins possess all the group arrogance of their
19th century Chinese counterparts. Their primary concern is not for the
overall welfare of Japan but their own insular and elitist well-being.
To be fair, this group is really not all that out of keeping with the
rest of the country.
Contrary to Japan’s highly valued
wa, or social harmony, the society actually consists of highly
competitive power groups, often denominated by university affiliation
and professional organization. At the top is the Tokyo
University/Ministry of Foreign Affairs faction or batsu, consisting of
the very best university graduates. As much as this group goes through
the motions of taking care of the “little people,” their primary mission
is to serve and protect their own interests. That includes honoring and
protecting their seniors or sempai, who have served before them –
including those who made up the Japanese Government during the 1930s and
Japanese politicians, including prime
ministers, dare not go against the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, given
their wide-ranging political influence in Japan’s public and private
sectors. Formal statements, including equivocating “apologies” must
first be vetted by the ministry.
And to date, no statement has even implied dishonor on prior, now
long-deceased government leaders, including senior bureaucrats. To do so
would potentially weaken the elitism of these government officials and
potentially set a precedent that may hold them accountable in the
Given this context, a small number of
bureaucrats are holding back better relations with Japan’s neighbors.
And today, given China’s rising hegemonic power, Korea and Japan can ill
afford squabbling over historical matters when they have much more to
gain in cooperating more closely.
What is needed is for Emperor Akihito, as head of state, to stand above
the cynical concerns of an elite few and do what is right and best for
the Japanese people.
He needs to make a short and
sincere apology to the victims of World War II once and for all, and
then step down to resume his low profile duties. Only he can
unilaterally take this action. His father displayed greater personal
courage in 1945.
Can the present emperor do even less today?
* The author is president of Soft Landing Korea, a business development firm, and an alliance partner of Odgers Berndtson Japan.
by Tom Coyner. Senior Adviser for IPG.
Korea JoongAng Daily
August 21, 2012
IPG is engaged in projects for companies and entrepreneurs doing business in Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, Korea, Laos, Myanmar, the Philippines, Vietnam and the U.S.