When an apology need not be demanded

With Japan’s leader set to make a historic visit to Pearl Harbor, the US is not asking for an apology, just as Japan did not ask Obama for one in his visit to Hiroshima.  Friends are like that.

AP Photo
President Obama hugs Shigeaki Mori, an atomic bomb survivor, during a May 27 ceremony at Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park in Japan.

The prime minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, will visit a Pearl Harbor memorial on Dec. 26-27. He will be the first Japanese leader to do so. Along with President Obama, he will go to the USS Arizona Memorial and commemorate the victims of Imperial Japan’s attack 75 years ago. If all goes as expected, Mr. Abe will not make an official apology. And in that silence, he will be saying much.

His visit will come seven months after Mr. Obama became the first sitting American president to visit Hiroshima, the city where the United States dropped an atomic bomb in 1945 to end Japan’s involvement in World War II. The US president did not use that visit to apologize for the first use of nuclear weapons in war. But he did give a warm hug to one of the bombing’s survivors, Shigeaki Mori. To most Japanese, the gesture said far more than any apology.

The two historic events of the war, known simply as Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima, have little moral equivalency. Yet the fact that these two leaders did not feel pressure from each other’s country to offer an apology is quite a morality tale in today’s world. Too often, former enemies resort to using past wrongs to score points in the present. And in countries where weak leaders try to wrap themselves in anti-foreigner nationalism, exploiting history is still common.

Japan and the US, however, have shown how former enemies can not only become close allies but friends, lifting each other up and letting deeds say as much as words. And in Japan, a deep pacifism continues to demonstrate a commitment to peace and international order. As an Abe spokesman said, “The visit will serve as an opportunity to demonstrate to future generations our resolve not to repeat the horror and suffering of war as well as an opportunity to showcase the reconciliation between Japan and the United States.”

Starting in the 1960s, postwar Japanese leaders did start to express apologies and make amends to the countries that its former leaders attacked. Back then Japan still had not become the respected and admired country that it is today. Now few people, at least in the US, expect an apology. For his part, Obama hopes the Abe visit will be “a testament that even the most bitter of adversaries can become the closest of allies.”

One of Hollywood’s most famous movie lines – “Love means never having to say you’re sorry” – often gets derided as a sappy aphorism. Yet the sentiment can be useful when former enemies become friends. And if Abe bows at the Arizona Memorial or even hugs one of the survivors, he doesn’t need to say sorry.

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