A Ku Indeed!

Bell II: Sorry is the Hardest Word

Posted in Bell Reading Group, China, Politics by Chris on December 17, 2008

Something caught my eye when I was reading East Meets West. “Lo” — who presumably is the stand in for Daniel Bell’s views — makes a claim that if America wants to shore up its moral authority in the international arena, especially when it comes to the attempt to export its own political and moral values, she will have to learn to say “I’m sorry.” This struck me on a number of levels, not the least of which was my sheer inability to conceive of the American government ever apologizing for anything whatsoever. As Elton John put it, “sorry seems to be the hardest word.” But why is it so important in the East/West context? And why is it so hard to say “I’m sorry”?

Bell’s point occurs on page 62-63, where he suggests that to regain moral authority in the Asian world, America would need to apologize for the Vietnam War. My impression of this suggestion was not unlike Demo’s: “yeah, right!” I could not conceive of any American leader apologizing for Vietnam, or for pretty much anything for that matter. Hell, look at George Bush — it’s his signature style not to ever admit an error, much less apologize for one.

This discussion of Bell’s made me pause and think about a few things that I don’t know the answer to. Like:

1. Do Easterners and Westerners think differently about the nature of the apology? Particularly, I thought here of the Confucian way of thinking about power. As far as I read it, real power includes the capacity to point out one’s own weaknesses, and to be appropriately self-critical (interestingly enough, I think someone on the polar opposite side of things, such as Nietzsche, might say the same thing). But in the West you get the opposite approach — real power is signified by not making mistakes, or at least not portraying yourself as a person who does make mistakes.

2. Why is apology so important to moral authority in the East-West international context? Why is it so important, for a real substantive debate or conversation to proceed, that America apologize for Vietnam (or anything)? Or, on a more micro-level, why is apology so important to the health of a relationship? Does this carry over to the international arena?

3. Why are Americans so adverse to their leaders apologizing to what they perceive to be “out group” individuals? Republicans might apologize to other Republicans, but never to Democrats. Americans might apologize to each other, but never to other countries.

4. Can you conceive of a situation in which America would apologize to an out-group for anything?

5. Does China ever apologize for anything? If the PRC (say) thinks that America’s moral standing is harmed by its failure to apologize, has the PRC set the correct example itself? Has it apologized in appropriate situations? Or is it just as stubborn about “out-group” apologies as the West (America)?


12 Responses

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  1. Peony said, on December 17, 2008 at 6:13 pm

    Hi Chris,

    This particular passage also really made an impression on me. Ian Buruma wrote what I thought was a really outstanding book comparing Germany’s post WWII- record of apology and Japan’s– called the Wages of Guilt. To acknowledge the other side’s feelings– but more to remain committed to coming to mutual consensus (not turning away, or turning your back on someone) is probably extremely important as you suggested to the health of relationships.

    What follows is almost a meaningless comment because it is so trivial, but today– in two completely separate Japanese conversations– I was told that the person found it troublesome the way “Americans will just turn their backs and walk away”– in Japanese, they call this being “dry”.. and there was an implicit comparison to non-Western people (not just other Japanese, as the point was that Westerners walk away”)

    In both cases I didn’t say a word. Just listened… but I have been thinking about this “generalization”– for in the end, it really is a generalization since I don’t think I myself am that way in my relations with people– rather tending toward the cloying side I have been told 🙂

    Not to mention that japan (ostensibly a Confucian society) never apologized for its wartime behavior… so I am not sure its apology per se is as much an issue as what I would call *a commitment to reaching mutual consensus….*

    This is already REALLY getting into slippery slopes however…. so I will stop for now.

  2. Chris said, on December 17, 2008 at 6:26 pm


    I suppose that part of it (a part, anyway) is related to the need for recognizing the person-hood (or basic dignity, or some “functional equivalent”) of the other. No real relationship can succeed without this. Apologizing, I suppose, is a recognition of the capacity for submission relationally speaking, and if you aren’t ever willing to submit, then I suppose you aren’t really ever willing to recognize the dignity of the other. I find this fascinating, though I’m not sure I grasp the whole concept. It’s somewhat murky to me. Perhaps, in a way, part of it is allowing for the possibility (via submission) of the other serving as a kind of “benefactor.” You place yourself “at their mercy” and allow them to wield power over you, at least for an instance.

    I would suppose that “reaching mutual consensus” is not possible without such submission/putting oneself at the mercy of the other, as “reaching mutual consensus” requires a reciprocal give and take, and this means serving as both beneficiary and benefactor at appropriate times. For example, I find it incredibly hard to believe that the US government would ever “submit” to another power even in an instance (via apology), and as a result, this may signify a lack of capacity for true reciprocity.

    I realize that the “westerner” and “easterner” contrasts are so broad brush, and so miss so much in the process of painting portraits in this way. I’m also unsure, even statistically speaking, what easterners are like. But much as I think that some Westerners are reciprocal, it does seem to be a repeatable — and perhaps predictable — element of Westerner character (broadly construed) to do just that — “walk away”. If it is true that Westerners (on the whole) have “independent” selves, as opposed to “interdependent” this would make some sense; Westerners have nothing to lose, prima facie, in walking away. For the “Easterner” there is something to lose — essentially, oneself (relationally understood)!

    Of course, I’m not sure if this actually plays out in Eastern culture, but that’s the way the theory-driven explanation would push it I suppose.

    Japan’s failure to apologize (to China, specifically) is an interesting case, given its Confucian orientation. What’s behind it?

    I’m curious what you mean at the end too — that the apology can be put aside as long as mutual consensus building is taking place?

  3. Peony said, on December 17, 2008 at 6:40 pm

    No, I think I meant that the ability to apologize is a postive sign of a deeper kind of commitment (and that it is this deeper commitment of inter-dependence that is the more important characteristic??).

    So, in that sense while the US never apologized to japan after WWII there was certainly (in my opinion) a kind of commitment to rebuilding a positive relationship with japan. For better or worse.

    On the other hand, though, that ability to walk away– which one of my conversation partners said, “the scary way that Americans can just cut ties;” and “they are so dry” left me feeling very sad– and also I could not say I disagreed either. Though again not all Americans by any means are like this…. If you ever get a chance to read the Buruma book– because of its comparative approach, it is very very illumintaing– and more you will notice that it was the Western power (Germany) that apologiezed while the Confucian eastern power (japan still refuses to)… so that kind of also challenges this entire point, doesn’t it???

    –and aren’t you suppose to be correcting finals 🙂

  4. Phil Hand said, on December 18, 2008 at 6:18 pm

    I feel like I’m in some kind of looking-glass world here.
    Two factual points:
    1) Japan has apologised for the war many many times.

    Japan’s reaction to the war is clearly different to Germany’s, but to say Japan never apologised is just wrong. What’s interesting is that Peony lives there and still feels that the apology never happened. That suggests that the key issue isn’t the apology itself but some other kind of attitude.

    2) US apologies: one obvious recent example in this context is the apologies after the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. Just this year, Congress issued an apology to the victims of slavery.

    Peony’s already responded to the cartoonish idea that westerners don’t apologise because we can cut ties with the example of Germany. Nuff said, I think.

    Next, what is the basis for Chris’s weird claim that apologising is Confucian? Where in the Analects does it depict Confucius saying he’s sorry? Apology has a much clearer root in Christian values: Jesus says that anyone can get to heaven, they just have to repent, and **they will be forgiven** – a key point.

    Because what good is an apology if you’re not forgiven? If you take the risk, put yourself out there, say, “I was wrong, I’m sorry,” and the only response you get is, “Yes, you were wrong, you’re bad,” then the effort has been wasted; it is, if anything, counterproductive. Forgiveness is not an option after an apology; it’s a precondition for the apology to work.

    And this is one of the key reasons for the differences in the post-war behaviours and situations of Japan and Germany. Germany was surrounded by countries determined to forgive it, for one reason or another (guilt about Germany’s interwar poverty contributing to the rise of the Third Reich; a recognition that a failed Germany would be a disaster for Europe); Japan is surrounded by countries with no such intention. One striking consequence of this difference in circumstances is that even after all the statements issued by Japanese leaders, you still get people asserting that “Japan never apologised”. Who knows, perhaps Peony’s right: the acts of apology were never completed, because they were never recognised and accepted by the Asian victim-states.

    My observation of many things that appear to be apologies in China is that they are not sincere, and in fact are not apologies but expressions of submission. This is particularly true in the workplace, where a junior will apologise to his/her boss, but retract the apology and bitch about it the moment the boss leaves the room. The whole scene – boss criticises, boss demands self-criticism, junior apologises, boss accepts – is a ritualistic, formal act maintaining social structures. It carries none of the meaning imputed to apologies in the west, where apology implies a deep knowledge that one has done something wrong, and a desire to express that knowledge to the injured party. In the example I was giving above, generally the criticised employee does not acknowledge any fault.

    The western model of apology I think is very un-Confucian because of the level of introspection it requires. Confucianism is all about action. C was never much interested in the inner life.

    In the original post, Chris mentions this claim: “to regain moral authority in the Asian world, America would need to apologize for the Vietnam War.”

    This is a mendacious claim, I think, for the reason given above. Many Asian leaders are not ready to accept such an apology and forgive. What they actually want is an admission of guilt from the USA; they want this because it would give them political ammunition. However, baldly asking for a confession is not going to achieve results, so they dress up the claim in a way that would appeal to anyone’s moral sense: be the big man, give an apology. One reason the USA does not make the apology is that they sense that forgiveness will not be forthcoming; it would be a failed apology.

    That was a long rant, sorry! Hope there’s something interesting in there…

  5. Chris said, on December 18, 2008 at 7:21 pm

    Hi Phil –

    Thanks for the comment! You make a lot of great points here (and add some good factual info). I’ll try to move point by point.

    1. Thanks for the info on the Japanese/American apologies (I have Google myself, I should use it now and again!).

    I had forgotten about the Chinese embassy situation. I missed the victims of slavery one. How did I miss it? I’ll have to look at this. In any case, the two cases are so different; in the former, it’s an accident, in the latter not. In my eyes for former isn’t so hard to imagine (given typical American attitudes) but the latter one is, given that the behavior was obviously intentional. But still (and I’d still love to see the internals on that Congressional vote, I’ll Google it later): it’s one thing to apologize for something remote in the past, another to apologize for something that people still identify with, or remember. This is what makes Bell’s Vietnam example so powerful for me. Still, an apology is an apology!

    2) On the origin of the apology: I hope I didn’t put off the wrong impression. I wasn’t implying (or didn’t mean to imply) that the speech act of apologizing was Confucian. I was just suggesting that a tendency towards self-criticism on the part of the powerful was Confucian. Or: that the more powerful one gets, the more one should be capable of self-criticism. There’s an analogy here with apologies, but no direct link to the speech act itself.

    Also, Bell implies that the tendency towards apologizing is at least more acceptable in Eastern atmospheres. I’m not sure, empirically, whether this is the case or not.

    Third, I was drawing on personal conversations with Henry Rosemont concerning the “benefactor and beneficiary” distinction that Rosemont reads into the Confucian tradition, one that, if we connect some dots, can be connected up with the issue of apologetic speech acts (which can be seen as a willingness to serve as a beneficiary in a relationship, since one is submitting to the other).

    There’s a lot there, and a lot of connecting points, but I wasn’t trying to imply that actual apologies were Confucian (in the classic texts) . I would be comfortable with the suggestion that a modern Confucian, if he/she drew on some of the themes in the classic texts, could apply that to the notion of apologizing to make a good case for the need for such speech acts on the part of the powerful. But that’s an application point, and so somewhat separate.

    3) Phil, I’m intrigued by this claim:

    “Because what good is an apology if you’re not forgiven? If you take the risk, put yourself out there, say, “I was wrong, I’m sorry,” and the only response you get is, “Yes, you were wrong, you’re bad,” then the effort has been wasted; it is, if anything, counterproductive. Forgiveness is not an option after an apology; it’s a precondition for the apology to work.”

    I would take it that the “good” of the apology lies at least partly in the act of submission. It may well be that the apology is not accepted. And then I would suppose that “harmony” does not occur; but if the person does not apologize at all, then it seems to me that the virtue of the prospective supplicant is harmed. If anything, even a non-accepted apology increases the virtue of the supplicant, no? One can become “closed off” to submission; if so, one lacks the kinds of dispositions needed to contribute to relational harmony. I guess what I’m saying here is that as far as I see it, the apology “works” (or can work) on a variety of levels simultaneously.

    4) I find the Japanese/German analogy very, very interesting. I must admit to ignorance on these issues, though. Perhaps Peony can help here, or someone else reading along? Phil: why do you think the countries around Japan were not willing to accept the apology? What was missing?

    5) Your mentioning of the insincere apologizing in China (in the workplace) is also interesting. I definitely disagree with you about the “inner life” issues here regarding Confucius, or at least we’d have to be clearer (both of us) about what “inner life” means. I find claims that there is no “inner life” in the early Confucians very hard to swallow, but again, I’m not sure (not just with you — this claim is also made by some in the literature) what the claim amounts to most of the time.

    If it means “having the right intentions/emotional states” then it is clearly wrong. Think of Lun Yu 2.7 (among other places): to care for one’s parents without the proper respect and emotion is considered inappropriate. Similarly, an apology (in the modern context) without the requisite required emotion/intention would not be seen as a correct or appropriate instantiation of ritual.

    6) On the Vietnam claim, that’s not mine — it’s Daniel Bell’s (or at least Lo’s, his voice in the dialogue). I don’t necessarily agree with it or not at this point. However, and mirroring a point I made above, I’m not sure a sense that the apology will not be accepted is sufficient reason to not apologize. At the very least, it is a signal of the agent’s virtue. The refusal to apologize if it is not accepted strikes me as a lack of virtue — perhaps even a sign of vice in some cases.

    No need to apologize — there’s a lot to think about here!

  6. Peony said, on December 18, 2008 at 8:41 pm

    In brief–

    1) Phil your factual points aren’t very factual regarding japan (I will not say further because I don’t feel interested to do so)

    2) I never said the US doesn’t apologize– that was Chris– but your idea that it only doesn’t apologize for Vietnam because the apology will not be accepted is also a bit strange (what do you base this on?) Even 15 years ago when I was there Vietnamese people as well as the government were dying to get back to normal relations. Agreed with Chris 6)

    3) You might want to re-read my cartoonish bit since Germany was not held up as proof– rather the opposite.

  7. Chris said, on December 18, 2008 at 8:49 pm


    Japanese/Chinese historical interrelations since WWII are hardly my specialty. But I did find this:


    Here, the suggestion is that while Japan “apologized” it was seen as insincere by the Chinese, for a number of reasons outlined in the short piece.

    I’ll leave it there, as I don’t know much about it.

  8. Phil Hand said, on December 18, 2008 at 11:06 pm

    Chris – my ignorance of Confucianism showing there.

    I didn’t think through the claim about inner life well enough at all. Not knowing the texts, all I have is a kind of feeling that Confucianism is mostly concerned with social actions; I feel that this is somewhat in contrast with, for example, Christianity, which requires active introspection in the form of prayer. This came out in a jumbled way as “C isn’t interested in the inner life”, which as you say is wrong as it stands. I’ll have to do some more reading.

    I find your idea that a modern Confucian would be a good apologizer interesting, as it runs a bit contrary to what I imagine. I find it hard to imagine who a Confucian would apologize to, and on what grounds they would apologise. Again, I’ll have to read more.

    I can certainly agree that cultivating the humility necessary for apologies would be a good thing for a Confucian. But I still think that as a social act with multiple parties, apologies can fail. This may not be an excuse not to apologise for a Confucian, but it’s just possible that it might be for a utilitarian. In the case of the US and Vietnam, I suspect that there is a large dash of realpolitik involved. I don’t see the US as being particularly virtuous in its foreign policy by any philosophy!

    On the difference between Germany and Japan after WWII, I’m no historian and I can’t say. I might hazard a guess, though. After WWII the Allies got satisfaction from Germany. First, they defeated Germany militarily, and created the great narrative of the just war; second, they got lots of money. The Asian states that suffered the most under Japan weren’t even invited to San Francisco. They never got the satisfaction of winning the war, or the compensation of being allowed to participate in the reparation process. In China and SE Asia, the communist revolutions added an extra reason to maintain hate for US stooges.

    Finally, that news from 2005 is interesting. My first instinct is to read it as Chinese unwillingness to accept an apology, because China was demonizing Japan in 2005 for internal political reasons (China’s attitude to Japan is weird – why did it suddenly turn on the charm at the election of Abe, a much more conservative figure than Koizumi? I wish I knew). There will always be reasons to reject an apology if the apologee wants to.
    Peony, your comment is interesting: you say the Vietnamese wanted normal relations, and imply that the only obstacle to normal relations is the lack of a US apology. If the US would just say those words, then relations would do a 180 degree turn? I find that very hard to believe. It reminds me of Chinese propaganda: if only foreign country X would just (do everything we want) then there would be no problem. The issue here is the complete denial of China’s/Vietnam’s agency in the relationship. China often presents itself as a victim, which is a politically useful pose. Maybe one problem with accepting apologies is that you then stop being a victim.

  9. Peony said, on December 18, 2008 at 11:19 pm

    Hi Phil,

    I didn’t want to go into this but… I think the Chinese rejection of the so-called apology has more to do with the re-writing of the Japanese school history books, visits to “the shrine” and other actions and statements made after apologies were issued



    Regarding Vietnam, no, I don’t think it was an apology the Vietnamese wanted but a lifting of the enemy state status which was a huge hindrance on Vietnam ability to be economically viable. When I traveled there, I could not get a stamp in my passport as it was still considered an enemy state by the US.

    The above is all to say that the victim nations are not really as interested in apologies as they are in actions– and that it’s really not all about maintaining victim status as there are, I think, real problems which remain un-resolved.

  10. Phil Hand said, on December 19, 2008 at 1:46 am

    Thanks, Peony. The Lind piece seems to present evidence for my point:
    “Although it offered a lukewarm apology and paid reparations to Israel, West German commemoration, education, and public discourse ignored the atrocities Germany had committed, and instead emphasized German suffering during and after the war. Nevertheless, during this era of minimal contrition West Germany and France transformed their relations. By the early 1960s, both French elites and the general public saw West Germany as their closest friend and security partner.”
    The attitudes of victim states play a vital role in the rehabilitation of the aggressor state.

    The McCormack piece lacks context for me. There is a powerful conservative voice in Japan that has downplayed Japan’s war crimes. However, I just don’t know if that voice is louder than in other countries; and it’s certain that the continuing hostility from China and North Korea in particular will have added fuel to any conservative backlash.

    I’d forgotten that the US and Vietnam are still at war. You’re right, that kind of situation requires action, not just ritual or expression.

  11. Peony said, on December 19, 2008 at 9:13 am

    Hi Phil,

    I wanted to clarify a few points– not because I think I know all the facts (quite the contrary!) just so that I don’t feel like my opinion is being mis-represented (due to my own lack of language skills).

    1) I am actually not sure if Vietnam and the US are in fact still at War. They were though when I was there about 10 years ago. At that time– and yes, this is just one woman’s experience– the Vietnamese people I spoke with without exception welcomed me and made it clear that they wanted to move beyond the war to a place of friendship. There was also mention made in overseas papers at that time about the Vietnamese wish for normalized relations in the US so that they could **get on with business**. I wrote a bit about Vietnam recently on my blog if you are interested

    2) I think the German and Japanese cases were probably much different than your comment suggests. First, I don’t think Germany revises its history textbooks used in public schools and Germany (I believe) has had a special budget for holocaust remembrance (building monuments and putting on theater productions etc). These things would be pretty unheard of in japan where history really has been brushed under the carpet. To just switch to Korea for one second, the comfort women do not wish to maintain victim status and have been begging to be heard for how long? 40 years… A group recently came to Tokyo once again to try and get their wrongs addressed. If Japan apologizes and then re-writes the history books and their highest politicians visit shrines to basically pay respect to perpetrators of the war crimes, what does any apology really mean?

    I know there is a school of thought that China seeks to perpetuate its victim status for domestic political benefit– I disagree.

  12. Konrad said, on December 19, 2008 at 5:19 pm

    The textbooks in Japan come in all sorts and sizes. If you are in Tokyo and are interested in this issue, I recommend popping over to the wonderful International Library of Children’s Literature in Ueno Park (http://froginawell.net/eala/Main/InternationalLibraryOfChildrensLiterature) where you can browse through a dozen or more history textbooks on Japanese history. I spent a pleasant afternoon in this way.

    What you will quickly discover, if you have a working knowledge of Japanese 20th century history, is that some of these textbooks (that is approved texts for official use in class) are very good (my favorite was an innovative textbook which worked backwards, beginning in the 20th century, with excellent pages and supplementary materials and side bars on Japanese imperialism), some mediocre, and the most popular text, frankly lacking in material, not only on Japanese imperialism and atrocities but on the modern period as a whole. Then, of course, there is the infamous “new” textbook and its 2nd edition which restructures the entire narrative of Japanese history in a triumphalist manner.

    Given the importance of Japanese imperialism and the atrocities of its forces, the state of Japanese textbooks has *justly* received the most attention and criticism from all concerned.

    If we step back, however, and look at textbooks in the region the state of affairs is without a doubt the least problematic in Japan. Japan has a variety of textbooks, produced by private companies, which submit themselves for review to a national agency, ostensibly objective in its review (though, as events have shown and my own conversation with one of its historians on staff, susceptible to political pressure behind the scenes), go through a complex review policy and then compete in the market. Happily, less than 1% of schools in Japan have chosen the most nationalist text.

    Things are much worse in Korea. While there is a review process, there is now a blatant and direct attempt to interfere in the process which has recently received the attention of Korea scholars worldwide. Even before this, both the “leftist” mainstream textbooks that now dominate, and the anti-communist texts they replaced, are really filled with severe distortions, factual errors, and an extremism of narrative that makes Japanese textbooks look patently tame by comparison.

    Don’t get me started on Chinese textbooks…

    The problem in Japan is not primarily the textbooks – I have huge issues with the review system in Japan as it stands, even if it is the least problematic in the region. The nationalist and nation-state based narrative that results is, in my opinion, inevitable given a public education system and nationally supervised textbook system under the nation-state framework. The worst problem in Japan, and more so in other parts of the region, is that there simply is almost no time to tackle the 20th century! Japanese, Taiwanese, and Korean students, alike, not to mention Norwegian students (I can’t speak for American students) are forced to tackle the most complex and important century (in my mind) in a horribly short period of time. This is partly a structural problem of education but partly intentional: the most contentious and obviously “political” of time periods is a mine field for educators and one many of them naturally tend away from confronting.

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