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Japan and the Art of Apology

Feb 16, 2010


APDS Blogger: Mike Hallquist

Last Thursday, Japan’s Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada apologized for Japan’s colonial occupation of Korea during World War II. Okada described the time as “tragic” and stated, “I can fully understand the feelings of (Koreans) who were deprived of their identity and nation. I believe we must never forget the victims.” While the words “sorry” or “comfort women” were never uttered, news of another official Japanese apology spread quickly throughout East Asia. Many South Korean news sites lauded the apology and viewed Okada’s statement as a genuine attempt to better the relations between the two nations. While apologies for heinous behavior have rarely hurt relations, Japan is treading thin ice with the South Korean people because of its inability to turn its apologetic rhetoric into action.

At the heart of Japan-Korean relations is Japan’s use of comfort women in WWII. Comfort women were those women who were forced into sexual slavery and prostitution by the occupying Japanese military. While the victims originated from all occupied Japanese territories, the majority was Korean. Until 1993, the Japanese government failed to acknowledge or apologize for their use of sexual slavery despite mounting physical evidence and official documentation. The most substantial apology was delivered by the Japanese Socialist party Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama in 1995 when he stated, “I offer my profound apology to all those who, as wartime comfort women, suffered emotional and physical wounds that can never be closed…” Unlike the prior vague apologies for inhumane WWII behavior by Japanese officials, Murayama’s was direct, specific, and genuine. While Murayama’s apology was overwhelmingly popular amongst Japan’s foreign neighbors, conservative political leaders from the country’s long ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) despised it.

The conservative and nationalist LDP Prime Ministers following Murayama (ie: Junichro Koizumi) refuted Murayama’s famous apology and continued to stoke the flames of foreign outrage by visiting the controversial Yatsukuni Shrine for domestic political gain. In fact, shortly before I studied in Japan in 2007, former Prime Minster Shinzo Abe found himself in hot water after insisting there was little evidence supporting the use of coercion against the comfort women. Although Abe apologized soon after, the inability of the Japanese government to consistently claim accountability for their WWII actions have turned an opportunity to “come clean” and create good will (or soft power) amongst its neighbors into a public diplomacy nightmare. Fast forward to 2010, and Katsuya Okada’s apology.

Unfortunately for Japan, Okada’s apology, genuine or not, will do little in the long run to repair relations between the two nations. While Murayama did establish the Asian Women’s Fund to assist and pay reparations to comfort women, few victims and their families are willing to collect the benefits because the organization is private and not directly affiliated to the Japanese government. Meanwhile, lawsuits against the Japanese government and large Japanese companies who helped facilitate the abuses have been repeatedly thrown out of Japanese courts. Until the Japanese government and court system take this issue seriously, the legacy of comfort women will remain a constant and painful thorn in Japan’s side as they attempt to increase their soft power in Asia. Japan should learn that empty apologies without action will burn bridges instead of build them.

Mike Hallquist is a second year student in the Master of Public Diplomacy program at the University of Southern California. He began studying Japanese politics and foreign language throughout his undergraduate program at the University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee. During his final semester, he studied abroad at Nanzan University in Nagoya, Japan. In 2010 he was awarded a Foreign Language Area Studies Fellowship and continues to study Japan's public diplomacy, foreign policy, and the Japanese language.

Photo by Maina Kiai I CC BY 2.0


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Wow, what a bunch of

Wow, what a bunch of revisionist history. I don't think it is Mike that needs help in better understanding the issue.



Ikuhiko Hata is a well known historian who is critical against Nanjing massacre deniers and other revisionist. But if you want to call him revisionist, that's okay. My advise was for Mike, not you, for he is studying Japanese and seemed able to read historical documents written in Japanese. If you have something to teach me about this issue, you are welcome to post your message on my blog.

Although, being born and raised in Yokohama City where hundreds of Japanese comfort women were officially registered to the local police station to serve sex to American soldiers after WWII,honestly, I am skeptical about what I can learn from you about this issue.

Now back to Mike. If you want

Now back to Mike. If you want to study about this issue, in my opinion, these are the "must read" books.

従軍慰安婦資料集 "Collection of Primary Source of Military Comfort Women". Yoshiaki Yoshimi (written in Japanese)従軍慰安婦資料集-吉見-義明/dp/4272520253

慰安婦と戦場の性 "The Comfort Women and Sex in the Battle Zone" Ikuhiko Hata (written in Japanese)慰安婦と戦場の性-新潮選書-秦-郁彦/dp/4106005654

Hata and Yoshimi are top researchers in this field. However they have different views. So I think it is best you read both.

慰安婦問題とは何だったのか "What was 'Comfort Women Issue'" Yasuaki Onuma (Japanese)「慰安婦」問題とは何だったのか―メディア・NGO・政府の功罪-中公新書-大沼-保昭/dp/4121019008

Onuma has been working to help Korean-Japanese for decades yet he is critical against this comfort women dispute

And the books below, written

And the books below, written by Korean and Korean-Japanese professors, should also be helpful for you to understand about comfort women.

生活者の日本統治時代 "People Under Japanese Colonial Rule" O Seonhwa (written in Japanese)生活者の日本統治時代―なぜ「よき関係」のあったことを語らないのか-呉-善花/dp/4879195731/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1266571294&sr=1-3

和解のために "For Reconciliation" Park Yu-ha (Korean/ Japanese)和解のために-教科書、慰安婦、靖国、独島-朴-裕河/dp/4582702651

大韓民国の物語 "The Story of South Korea" Lee Yong-hoon (Korean/Japanese)大韓民国の物語-李-榮薫/dp/4163703101

I'm currently at a conference

I'm currently at a conference without my laptop/internet access. I will reply to this strand when I return

Alright, sorry for the delay.

Alright, sorry for the delay. I hope my reply finds you.

The issue of comfort women is one that every researcher must be scrutinized for bias. Since the issue is so divisive, there's a tendency for scholars on both sides to use hyperbole with their research claims. That being said, the vast majority of research I read never denies that examples of forced sexual prostitution existed in Korea. Rather, researchers have gone back and forth over how prolific the issue was and the level of military involvement. While those are indeed important facts to debate, it's sidestepping the issue.

What's most important is that examples of comfort women DID exist in Korea. No matter the level, Japan got caught with its hand in the cookie jar. The 1993 or 1995 apologies, late as they were, should have been acknowledged consistently and followed with appropriate consolatory action. That way, Japan and the region could have moved past their WWII behavior like Germany was able to decades ago. Instead, news like this apology turns into a renewed debate that is a no win public diplomacy situation for the Japanese that could have been entirely avoided.

Lastly, I'm not maintaining that Japan is the only nation to commit violent sexual crimes against women. Unfortunately rape and sexual misconduct often goes hand and hand with war and ensuing occupations. But, discrediting the US's Congress's investigation does little to change my opinion on the matter and arguing that the U.S. had a similar behavior during its occupation is just not relevant to this issue and is a whole other can of worms.

Thanks for you reply and suggestions!

Thank you for your reply Mike

Thank you for your reply Mike.

"While those are indeed important facts to debate, it's sidestepping the issue"

If you had been observing this dispute from the early 90s, you should had noticed that this was actually the point of the dispute and that this issue was very political from the beginning.

Chinese laborers DID work in cruel working conditions in the building of American transcontinental railroad, and I believe no American would deny that, but whether they were drafted by the American government or not is another story. If American government was accused for their military abducting and sending people from Africa for their plantation slavery, do you think President Obama would admit it as a historical fact and apologize to African countries? Surely there will be a hot debate on this topic and that only proves USA is a country of free speech.

You can find comfort women

You can find comfort women appearing in many (1)old Japanese war movies and literature. Everybody knew life of these prostitutes in Japan, in its developing days, were miserable whether they are called geisha or comfort women, or whether they made large amount of money or not. As it is written in Arthur Golden's Memoirs of Geisha they were sold by their parents or often lured by evil brokers.That was why no one paid much attention to this issue-because that's the way Japanese/Korean lived. (Remember, according to the recent study, 30- 40 percent of CW were ethnic-Japanese and many ethnic-Korean Japanese soldiers met them at war) When Japanese military decided to invite private run brothels (half of them were run by Korean) to war zones in order to prevent rape, average working condition in these facilities might not have been better than that of domestic brothels, yet you can not say it was worse.
Germany did not hire their colonial women for military brothels. So if you think this issue is the heart of Japan-Korea relations, "Japan’s use of comfort women" should be, in my opinio, compared with France's use of their colonial women in Bordel Mobile de Campagne (military brothel) and Japan could learn from France how France moved past their imperialism behavior.

Comparative study of Germany and Japan was popular in Japan from mid 80s to 90s but soon faded because researchers found out that situation surrounding these two countries were different and comparing these two countries was more difficult than they thought. Why does Japan has no serious trouble with other Asian-pacific countries (except communist countries) but only has trouble with S.Korea? I'm afraid the answer is not as simple as you think. Philippines, Taiwan, Indonesia, Singapore, Australia, Burma, India these countries never exaggerate historical facts or use history as a political weapon.



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