A political economy of compensation for the past became entrenched around
the world during the 1990s. Although the practice of official compensation
for state wrongdoing existed throughout the twentieth century, it expanded
transnationally and without precedent in breadth and depth at the century's
end. This economy of compensation is a potentially multi-trillion dollar
business, and in fact nations are continuing to take part in this seemingly
soft economy even as they push ahead with expanded military budgets and a
new world war on terrorism. Clearly, the apologetic economy is somehow
valuable to the state. Its value can be measured best, not in the amount of
money, but in the way the payments are described, in the words of regret
surrounding the cash. Displaying a mutually understandable amount of apology
affords a critical non-military means to define and legitimate state power
in the global system.
The case of Japan shows that, amazingly, official expressions of sorrow and
regret may render outcomes contradictory to what advocates of apology want.
It is in this contradiction - more than in analyzing a particular choice of
term - that it becomes possible to value the practice of apology to the
state. Apology's late twentieth century swell has produced a condition in
which official apologetic terms may strengthen a state's claims on the
future even at the expense of the dignity that victims seek. This
uncomfortable tension comes into relief perhaps nowhere more clearly than in
Japan. Japan's response to victims of its Asia-Pacific empire and war has
made the transnational practice of national apology a centerpiece of
regional politics. Although it goes against the grain to say so, I maintain
that Japan is an apologetic nation according to international methods of
reckoning, and considering how the country officially reflects on the past
reveals disturbing and internationally resonant pitfalls of state apology.
Alexis Dudden is Mercy Assistant Professor of History at Connecticut College
and currently at Rikkyo University.