East Asia Forum - Tessa Morris-Suzuki on Japanese war apologies lost in translation

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.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.


Read the whole article at East Asia Forum.

Image by Teresa Shen on Flickr under the CC BY 2.0



Updated:  27 November 2018/Responsible Officer:  JI Management Group/Page Contact:  Japan Institute