Most Japanese are Shocked when they Realize the Latent Antipathy the Rest of Asia Including Korea still holds toward them.

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 particular. 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.

While 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 defeat.

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.

So, 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 1940s.

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 future.

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

Sean Hayes, IPG’s Co-Chair of the Korea Practice Team, may be contacted at:

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