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Japanese war apologies lost in translation

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Japanese Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko offer a flower wreath at a memorial for the US military as they offer prayers for war victims at Peleliu island in Palau on 9 April 2015. 15 August 2015 marks the 70th anniversary of the end of the Pacific War. (Photo: AAP).

In Brief

15 August 2015 marks the 70th anniversary of the end of the Pacific War. It should be a solemn moment for reflection on a terrible episode that took many millions of lives, inflicted untold suffering and had consequences that still profoundly shape our world.


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But, instead, the anniversary is at risk of degenerating into a word game.

Much of the present attention is focused on the words that Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will use in his end-of-war commemorative statement. There will be a foretaste of this on 29 April, when Abe addresses a joint session of both houses of the US congress during his official visit to Washington.

Abe faces a dilemma. He is a fervent nationalist who has pledged to ‘restore Japan’s honour’ and denounced what he and his allies term ‘masochistic’ dwelling on wartime misdeeds. But he is also a passionate advocate of the alliance with the US and knows that he must satisfy a US administration deeply concerned about worsening relations between Japan and South Korea.

And that is where the language barrier becomes a handy diplomatic tool.

The messages leaking out from Tokyo suggest that Abe’s congressional and 70th anniversary statements will be ‘forward looking’, but they are also likely to express ‘deep remorse’ about the events of the war. If Abe expresses ‘deep remorse’, and then neighbouring countries like China and South Korea respond by condemning his words as inadequate and demanding further apologies, most of the English-speaking world will — understandably enough — condemn China and South Korea for pig-headed refusal to let bygones be bygones.

But the problem is that Japanese, Chinese and Korean audiences will not hear the word ‘remorse’. What they will hear instead is the actual Japanese word that Abe is expected to use: hansei, or its Chinese or Korean equivalents (fǎnshè/banseong). Hansei can, with a bit of a stretch, be translated as ‘remorse’, but its basic meaning is ‘reflection on’ or ‘reconsideration of’ the past. In Japan this word is used in common speech. If a company gets into trouble for dubious practices, one of its executives will appear on TV news to bow and express his deep hansei, and that is the last that is likely to be heard of the matter. If you are involved in running a conference or a sporting event, this will be followed by a ‘hansei meeting’, where you discuss what went well and what didn’t, and then probably all go off for drinks together.

Former prime minister Tomiichi Murayama’s 1995 statement commemorating the 50th anniversary of the end of the war also contained the word hansei, as did former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi’s statement on the 60th anniversary. But the great difference was that, in both statements, this was followed by the word owabi (apology). Murayama and Koizumi not only ‘reflected deeply’ by also, on the basis of that reflection, expressed their feelings of heartfelt apology. If Abe omits the word owabi (as the indications are that he will do), English-speaking audiences will hear the carefully constructed translation ‘remorse’, and think they are hearing a heartfelt apology. But Japanese, Chinese and Korean audiences will hear the resounding absence of the apology that Abe’s predecessors made but he did not.

In the recent rhetoric of the East Asian history wars, such use of semantics and flexible translations as a diplomatic tool has been elevated to an art form. Challenged on the contentious ‘comfort women’ issue — the issue of women recruited, in many cases by trickery or coercion, into wartime Japanese military brothels — Abe denied that such women were recruited ‘forcibly in the narrow sense of the word’. In his most recent public statement on this issue, for the benefit of the US media, Abe states: ‘When my thought goes to these [‘comfort women’], who have been victimised by human trafficking and gone through immeasurable pain and suffering beyond description, my heart aches’. Note the passive voice — ‘have been victimised’ — which conveniently allows ample space to deny that it was the Japanese military who did the victimising.

Meanwhile, Abe seeks to allay US concerns about the issue by insisting that his government continues to ‘uphold the Kono Statement’: the 1993 apology by former chief cabinet secretary Yohei Kono, which acknowledged that many women were recruited by coercion. But the term that Abe uses in Japanese is keisho suru. The literal translation of keisho suru is ‘to inherit’. What ‘inheriting the statement’ means is unclear, but it is evidently something different from ‘upholding’ it in the normal sense of the word.

In its most recent round of approvals of junior high school history textbooks, Japan’s Education Ministry insisted that the single brief reference to ‘comfort women’ must be accompanied by the words, ‘it is now the government’s position that no confirmed materials directly suggesting the forcible taking away of comfort women by military or officials have been found’. This can only be interpreted as a violation of the Kono Statement’s solemn promise that ‘we shall face squarely the historical facts as described above instead of evading them, and take them to heart as lessons of history. We hereby reiterate our firm determination never to repeat the same mistake by forever engraving such issues in our memories through the study and teaching of history’.

In the short run, word games and smart translations may slip past monolingual politicians and journalists. In the long run, equivocation and double-speak can only deepen the wounds of the past and the conflicts of the present. What is needed instead is real and deep acknowledgment, by all sides, of the terrible realities of the Pacific War, a willingness to face past wrongs and, on that basis, a renewed determination never to allow our region to slide into the abyss of such a conflict again.

Professor Tessa Morris-Suzuki is an ARC Laureate Fellow based at the School of Culture, History and Language, at the College of Asia and the Pacific at the Australian National University.

4 responses to “Japanese war apologies lost in translation”

  1. As always Prof. Morris-Suzuki’s analysis is compelling.

    It should be added the revisionist view of legal and political authority about statements. For example, Abe Shinzo and his ilk regard the Kono statement as having weak validity because it is merely the words of a Chief Cabinet Secretary. Hence when the Abe Cabinet in 2007 “inherited” the Kono statement with the cabinet finding that there was no rocumentary evidence of Japanese government or military involvement, this essentially overrode the Kono Statement even while nominally adhering to it. Even then there was LDP pressure on textbook publishers that a cabinet decision had the force of authority. Now Shimomura is officially enforcing these “guidelines.”

    Similarly, Hagiuda and others close to Abe and the Kantei have argued that if Abe says something say in a speech in Canberra, Jakarta, or Washington that might explicitly apologize, that is simply a statement and not a cabinet-endorsed Statement. So even if Abe uses words he claims not to know the meaning of, the argument is that anything that Abe says has no meaning unless the cabinet defines that meaning. Just a bit ago, we actually had a cabinet statement that said the cabinet found certain words like aggression and invasion to be vague and uncertain.

  2. I suppose the word hansei is more appropriate than any other words because it encompasses all of those factors as remorse for causing hardships to citizens of other nations, failure of properly understanding the international situation, poor diplomacy and others, etc. One must see that the use of the word hansei does not preclude the remorse. It is appropriate for a PM, as the nation’s leader, to look back the history and makes a balanced statement.

  3. So many regrets and remorse–were they ever even an apology? All these years is it not possible to interpret and say that Abe and many other Japanese politicians felt remorse and regrets for ‘themselves’ because that they didn’t win the Pacific War?

  4. The word 反省 (hansei) is not read fan4she3 in Mandarin. Fanshe4 means reflection (i.e. 反射 hansha). 反省 is read fan3xing3.

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