I let out a quiet cheer recently when Mitsubishi Materials, a sister company to my old employer Mitsubishi Corporation, started down the road of apologising for using slave labour in WWII. I used to be on the receiving end of campaigns for apologies and compensation from British Prisoners of War (PoWs) when I was in corporate communications at Mitsubishi Corporation and had many debates with my Japanese colleagues on what the right response might be.
Mitsubishi Corporation is a completely different company now in terms of ownership and structure to the Mitsubishi conglomerate during the war. The founding Iwasaki family was, however, not only pro-British, but also Iwasaki Koyata, the President during the war, was liberal and progressive in inclination, and rather bravely (given that other business leaders were assassinated for not being supportive of the militarist coup) spoke out against the war. The view amongst many Mitsubishi people after the war was – it was the government that forced these actions on Mitsubishi then, and it was the government that rightly said sorry and paid compensation to the PoWs afterwards. If there was a need to punish Mitsubishi as well, then the fact that the Iwasaki family and most of the senior managers were removed from their posts and the conglomerate was broken up under the Allied Occupation is surely sufficient.
Why apologise when it is not your fault – and wouldn’t such an apology be meaningless, almost insulting anyway? Actually there is a word in Japanese for apologising when it is not your own personal fault, but some kind of collective acknowledgement of responsibility is needed – hansei. It means reflection on what went wrong, an expression of regret for it having happened – “it shouldn’t have happened” and, most importantly, a commitment to take action to make sure it doesn’t happen again. You can see why successive Japanese prime ministers who weren’t personally involved in the wartime government might have thought this word adequate, as it appears to reiterate Japan’s commitment to remain a pacifist nation.
However equivalent words with the same linguistic roots exist in Chinese and Korean languages and consequently, Chinese and Korean activists do not accept hansei as being strong enough. The problem is it doesn’t contain enough shame. Owabi is a stronger word for “apology”, and contains a character which involves the symbol for “household”. This was the word used by previous Prime Ministers Tomiichi Murayama and Junichiro Koizumi, in addition to “hansei”, when apologising for Japan’s actions during WWII. By saying owabi, you are being remorseful and acknowledging the shame brought upon your group – whether it be your family, company or country.
Whether current Prime Minister Shintaro Abe will or won’t use “owabi” in his speech marking 70 years since the end of WWII has added poignancy, because not only will he be recognising the shame brought upon Japan (which could argue with some justification that at least it didn’t vote for its fascistic government in the 1930s, unlike Germany) but there is a family angle too. Abe is the grandson of Nobusuke Kishi, a Class A War Crimes suspect who was never tried for his part in the Japanese occupation of Manchuria and the use of Chinese forced labour, and went on to become Prime Minister himself in the 1950s.
In societies with elements of Shintoism or Buddhism or Confucianism underpinning it, as in Japan, Korea and China, apologizing on behalf of your predecessors or ancestors is hard to do. Not so much out of a sense of unfairness, but because you are visiting shame upon their memory, when they are no longer alive themselves to deal with it, and so the shame will simply be visited upon you and your peers and family. It feels like an unproductive humiliation, to be forced to attack your forebears, whom you were taught to respect.
The more usual pattern in Japan is for the father or elder to apologise for the sins and errors committed by the junior family members. This was seen most recently when Akio Toyoda apologised following the arrest of Julie Hamp, his personal appointment as Toyota’s global corporate communications chief, for illegally importing opiates into Japan. He even referred to her as one of his own children and then apologised for causing consternation to everyone, rather than any breaking of the law. The words used were yet another way of saying sorry – taihen moushiwake gozaimasen – “there is no reasonable explanation/excuse”. With this he became the shame magnet, taking the hit for Toyota not having somehow prevented her from making a mistake.
Universalist Westerners found this apology perplexing. Their view is that she was an idiot for not realising what the law was, or a criminal for deliberately breaking it. She should therefore be punished, and then maybe can rebuild her career after redemption. Universalists believe the rules are the rules and apply to all, without exception, in contrast to particularists, who take each case on its own merits, depending on the relationships of the people involved.
The Judaeo-Christian view as represented in the Old Testament is somewhat confused – both stating that the sins of the fathers will be visited on the third and even the fourth generation, but at the same time making it clear that the person who sinned is the soul that must take responsibility and be punished. Modern Western ethics, while seeing it as unfair that future generations should be punished for past generations’ wrongdoings, also insist that current generations acknowledge the crimes of the past in order not to repeat them.
In this sense, there is a common thread between East and West. Shame and admission of past guilt are both mechanisms for making sure that the sin is not committed or recommitted – because it is not just you, but your sons and daughters who will suffer the consequences.
By choosing to apologise in English, in the USA, Mitsubishi Materials avoided an oriental linguistic and ethical minefield, for the time being. The question of whether or not Mitsubishi Materials should accept shame will undoubtedly come up when, as they have promised, they apologise to Chinese and Korean forced labour survivors. I sense they were able to start with the apology in English as a warm up to this, with coaxing from Yukio Okamoto, a retired diplomat and renowned smooth operator who is now an external director at Mitsubishi Materials. He does not have to worry about the shame brought on his predecessors, as he is not an insider, and he also probably made sure the word “remorse” was used in English. I would imagine he also understood well the Western mentality that it is not about a Buddhist sense of collective shame so much as a Christian individualistic need to confess sins, publicly take the punishment and thereby gain redemption, allowing all to move on. Or as popular psychology would have it, giving the victims a sense of closure, which will make everyone feel better as a result.
Post confession, there is a sense of relief and a way to move on and move forward – and that is why I cheered when I read the coverage of Mitsubishi Materials’ apology – everyone behaved with dignity and sincerity and there was a sense of positivity. The Japanese participants seemed to have overcome the fear that with shame, there is no redemption, it endures, and it affects the whole group.
The worry is that if the shame magnet-father figure is not strong enough, the wider society will keep pressing until a bigger magnet is found. This is currently being played out with Toshiba’s accounting scandal. Despite the top executives resigning, bowing down for a record breaking 15 seconds of shazai (another word for apology, which contains the character for sin or guilt) and using the word owabi, the pressure keeps on. Hardly a day goes by without someone in the media questioning whether the root causes have really been exposed and whether enough has been done to redress them.
When the Nikkei announced its acquisition of the Financial Times, many Westerners commented that the Nikkei gave Olympus too easy a ride for its financial misconduct, unlike the Financial Times’ investigative approach. Compared to Toshiba, Olympus is not as iconic a company in Japan, therefore there was less sense of a wider reaching shame. Toshiba, however, was one of the Denden Kousha ‘family’ (suppliers to NTT when it was part of the ministry of telecommunications) and continues to be very tangled up in government industrial policy – most recently in joint ventures with another shame magnet, TEPCO of Fukushima infamy, acquiring a majority share of US nuclear power company Westinghouse in order to promote Japanese nuclear power capabilities overseas. Hisao Tanaka, the President who led the apologies and resignations, is seen as the fall guy. Even though his predecessors also resigned, the worry is that the shame is not just on Toshiba, but the Japanese political-industrial nexus as a whole. As Mitsubishi Materials has shown, the industrial side of Japan is beginning to find their shoulders are broad enough to take the hit and move on, whether the political side is too, Abe is about to demonstrate.
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