Saying 'Sorry' Isn't Always Easy

WWII internment camp for Japanese-Americans, Topaz, Utah,
AP (file)
There has been a drumbeat of criticism in Japan that the U.S. has failed to apologize sufficiently for the death of nine people who were killed when an American nuclear submarine sank a Japanese high school's training ship.

The U.S. has moved with a vengeance to silence its Japanese critics with a series of apologies.

"I'm here to request in the most humble and sincere manner that you accept the apology of the people of the United States and the U.S. Navy, as a personal representative of President Bush," Adm. William J. Fallon told relatives gathered at the U.S. ambassador's residence in Tokyo.

The submarime saga has thrown a spotlight on the checkered history of national apologies offered by the two nations.

On the same day the U.S. was profusely apologizing for the submarine tragedy, a Chinese man who survived the bubonic plague stood up in a Tokyo court and insisted that Japan and apologize for conducting germ warfare against Chinese villages during World War II.

Chen Zhi-fa, 68, was testifying in a lawsuit that claims at least 2,100 people were killed in biological experiments - including live vivisections - conducted by Japan's China-based Unit 731 and its affiliates. Chen, a retired railway worker from Zhejian province who lost his father and brother, said: "All we are asking for is to acknowledge the wrongdoing and apologize."

Day-to-day politeness requires Japanese people to apologize for minor infractions a dozen or more times every day – but the ancestor-worshipping nation has always choked on apologies over World War II atrocities. The United States, as well, has questionable chapters in its history that the government remains silent about.

For five decades after World War II, Japan refused to offer a straightforward apology for its brutal invasion of its Asian neighbors. Making the situation worse, Japan's textbooks have been slow to give a version of history that its neighbors can live with.

In 1993, after years of official silence and derisive remarks by government officials, Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa apologized for the sexual enslavement of up to 200,000 women from Japan, Korea, China, the Philippines, Indonesia, Taiwan and the Netherlands during the war, and set up a private fund to compensate them.

Two years later, Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama offered a blunt, broadly-worded apology for Japan's wartime actions. Murayama also sent a letter expressing remorse to Prime Minister John Major for the treatment of British POWs.

However, Murayama later denied the letter to Major was an apology, and refused to repeat his apology in front of the Japanese emperor, infuriating Japan's neighbors.

Japan has also refused to apologize for specific events, like the brutal behavior of its troops in China.

After decades of denial, Japan acknowledged several years ago that Unit 731 existed but has refused to confirm its activities, even though some Japanese veterans have come forwarto confess that the unit had conducted biological experiments on innocent Chinese.

The United States also has a mixed record on apologies.

A U.S. president had to apologize to Japan once before, in 1995, when the rape of a 12-year-old girl by three U.S. servicemen in Okinawa threatened to unravel the security alliance that keeps nearly 50,000 troops in Japan.

And the United States has also offered a formal apology and compensation to Japanese-Americans confined to internment camps during World War II.

But America doesn't always hand out apologies easily.

The U.S. has never apologized for the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II, even though new historical evidence suggests the attacks may not have been necessary.

Former President Clinton, when asked in 1995 if the United States should apologize, said, "No." He said he believed President Truman's decision to use the bomb was right, "based on the facts he had before him."

And just as Japan has a hard time facing up to its wartime history, the United States can't seem to address the legacy of slavery head on.

President Clinton made a start when he apologized for the treatment of the black Tuskegee sharecroppers who were unwitting guinea pigs in a syphilis experiment.

However, the suggestion by Rep. Tony Hall, D-Ohio, that the United States apologize for slavery flared into a national debate - and scattered with the forgetful winds of history.

And any U.S. apology for its wartime actions in Southeast Asia or its covert actions in Latin America and other parts of the world seems almost inconceivable - even if some day decades after the fact a family member of a victim of collateral damage or a death squad should make a tearful plea in a court room.

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