When Nations Apologize

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Edwin Battistella teaches linguistics and writing at Southern Oregon University.  He has a PhD in linguistics from the City University of New York. His most recent book is Sorry About That: The Language of Public Apology (2014).

In May 2016, when Barack Obama visited Hiroshima, some speculated that the president of the United States might offer an apology, on behalf of his country, for the bombing of that city at the close of the Second World War. Instead, in his joint press conference with Japan’s prime minister Shinzo Abe, Obama said that his visit would ‘honour all those who were lost in the Second World War and reaffirm our shared vision of a world without nuclear weapons’. The White House had announced before the visit that it would neither revisit the decision to drop the bomb nor apologise for it. The Obama administration judged that this wartime military action required no apology. 

When do nations apologise? Nearly 30 years earlier, in 1988, the US Congress passed the Civil Liberties Act authorising apologies and redress payments to the Japanese Americans interred during the 1940s. Signing the bill, the US president Ronald Reagan said that ‘here we admit a wrong; here we reaffirm our commitment as a nation to equal justice under the law’. Reagan’s successors, George H W Bush and Bill Clinton, later sent individual apology letters to former internees as their claims were processed.

The apology for internment was a long time coming. In the wave of xenophobia following the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, the military removed nearly 120,000 Japanese Americans and Japanese to what were euphemistically called War Relocation Authority camps. Those interred encountered hardship, suffering and loss. In 1944, with the Korematsu v United States court case, internment was declared unconstitutional. Some Japanese Americans had been imprisoned for as long as three years. They were given a train ticket and $25. But no apology.

Then, 43 years after internment ended, the US Congress apologised. The path to apology began in 1970, with a call to action from the Japanese American Citizens League. A decade later, the US president Jimmy Carter appointed a Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians to recommend a course of action. Getting the apology was controversial, involving issues of cost and accountability, political consensus-building, and philosophical debate about whether later governments were responsible for the moral failures of their predecessors. But, in the eyes of many former internees, the effort was worth it. For them, it was a restoration of honour. For the US government, the apology was an admission of having wronged its citizens and a recommitment to justice. ...

It turns out that apology at the national level is not so different from the process that individuals go through in apologising for a serious harm. The first step is the recognition that there is something to apologise for, and that it is serious. This recognition – shared, ideally, by the offender and the harmed – informs the making of the apology itself. In its most sincere form, making an apology involves a naming of the offence, a condemnation of previous behaviour, and a request for forgiveness. In The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959), the sociologist Erving Goffman described apology as splitting one’s self into two persons – a former guilty one and new one that condemns the past behaviour. The apologiser becomes a better person. Those receiving the apology are also changed by receiving a sincere gesture of respect. Honour is restored. ...




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