© 2024 WKNO FM
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

A Case Study In How To Apologize For A War Crime


Here's a case study in how to apologize for a war crime. It's the story of two apologies, both for the same chapter of World War II that Japan for decades refused to talk about. But only one of those apologies seemed to stick. Gregory Warner is host of NPR's Rough Translation podcast and brings us the story.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: So let's start with the first apology. It's 2009. Then-Ambassador of Japan Ichiro Fujisaki arrives at a hotel ballroom in Texas. And in the audience are former American POWs who were all forced to labor for Japanese companies. This exploitation of soldiers during World War II was a violation of the Geneva Conventions, but Japan had never apologized for it until now.


ICHIRO FUJISAKI: We extend a heartfelt apology to many people, including prisoners of wars...

WARNER: Too many people including prisoners of wars, even though it's really only the POWs who are here listening to him.


FUJISAKI: ...To all those who have lost their lives in the war...

WARNER: Wait, so now he's sorry for everyone who died during the war.


FUJISAKI: ...And after the war and their family members.

WARNER: When the ambassador finishes talking, half the POWs stand up and applaud and half of them turn their backs.

JAMES MURPHY: Turn their backs and walked out.

WARNER: James Murphy did not walk out, but he didn't applaud either. Murphy spent a year between 1944 and '45 laboring in the copper mines of Mitsubishi. He'd been starved, beaten, threatened.

MURPHY: You work or you die.

WARNER: And at one point, he got so sick he had to be dragged the two miles from the POW camp to the mine entrance. The Mitsubishi bosses tossed him in the mine to work anyway. After the war, he had tried to move on.

MURPHY: To set aside those experiences.

WARNER: But they kept coming back.

MURPHY: Post-traumatic and all that.

WARNER: He'd have nightmares.

MURPHY: Can't sleep at night (laughter).

WARNER: And he thought if only he could hear an apology, maybe he could make the past stay past.

MURPHY: I wanted someone to say, you know, sorry and that you won't do it again.

WARNER: Jim had met someone at one of these POW annual conventions, a Japanese writer named Kinue Tokudome, and she had an idea of what had gone so awry. See, Tokudome was born in Japan after the war, so she'd grown up in this thick silence around the whole topic of World War II.

KINUE TOKUDOME: I didn't even recognize the silence or anything. You know, when you're like a teenager, you don't care about what my father did during the war.

WARNER: Later, after she'd moved to America and started talking with POWs, the silence started to feel insulting. In 2006, when Mitsubishi was sued for its treatment appeared of POWs, lawyers for the company stood up in Japanese court and said that just to admit the history of forced labor would be to saddle Japan with a, quote, "mistaken burden of the soul" for hundreds of years.

TOKUDOME: My effort was try to explain to those who feel that way apology is an admission of shame, and you are shamed forever. POWs were not like that.

WARNER: It seemed to her the POWs did not want an apology soaked in shame. They just wanted the crimes to be acknowledged so there could be closure.

TOKUDOME: Where is the shame, no?

WARNER: The ambassador's apology had been so careful to avoid responsibility and shame that it wasn't a real apology. Tokudome wanted to convince Japan that a real apology could bring people closer together, so she wrote a letter to 14 Japanese companies that had used POW labor. Only one of those companies responded, Mitsubishi Materials, the same company that had once said that to admit the history of forced labor would be to saddle Japan with a centuries-long burden of the soul. But Mitsubishi presented its own hurdle. They'd only say sorry, they said, if the apology was accepted in advance.

TOKUDOME: Well, of course in a very polite Japanese way, asking me do you think the POW will accept if our company apologize?

YUKIO OKAMOTO: We were not sure if the American victims will really accept our apology emotionally and sincerely or not.

WARNER: Yukio Okamoto is on the board of Mitsubishi Materials.

OKAMOTO: Otherwise we will have to be met with further criticism.

WARNER: There was only one POW who could accept this apology. Of the thousands who had labored in Mitsubishi's mines, only one alive and well enough to travel - James Murphy.

TOKUDOME: And the company, Mitsubishi Materials, said so Mr. Murphy will accept it, right?

WARNER: But Murphy wasn't sure.

MURPHY: I was worried that the apology would not satisfy all the people I was representing.

WARNER: And you knew that some of the POWs who died would never have accepted it.

MURPHY: Yes, yes.

WARNER: Did that trouble you?

MURPHY: It did. It did.

WARNER: So now Murphy had to decide would he agree to accept the apology sight unseen? In the end, after a great deal of back and forth...

MURPHY: I thought we had this one chance.

WARNER: The way he saw it, Kinue Tokudome had worked so hard for this to happen. She was like the apology broker, and he'd grown to trust her.

MURPHY: I often don't feel well enough to travel, but I said I will be there that Sunday no matter what.

WARNER: So that Sunday, it's May 2015, six years after the ambassador's failed apology. Murphy and a few other PWOs and their families are sitting in front of Mitsubishi executives in a conference room in Los Angeles. All the press have been told to wait downstairs.


HIKARI KIMURA: (Speaking Japanese).

WARNER: In fact, we only have tape of this because the daughter of a POW happened to have a camera rolling.


KIMURA: (Speaking Japanese).

WARNER: Jim is listening to these words through an interpreter, all the details of what they went through.


KIMURA: (Speaking Japanese).

MURPHY: Without sufficient food, water, medical treatment, sanitation.

WARNER: It's so wonderfully specific.

MURPHY: And the harsh life in the mines. What else could I say?


KIMURA: (Speaking Japanese).

WARNER: Mitsubishi senior executive Hikari Kimura says, when I understand the sad truth of the matter, I feel a pained sense of ethical responsibility as a fellow human being. And then Murphy watches as all seven Mitsubishi executives in the room together stand up, face him and bow at the waist.


KIMURA: (Speaking Japanese).

MURPHY: It was almost embarrassing. I wasn't expecting so much feeling to be put into it.

WARNER: Was the Mitsubishi one the first time you really were sure this is a sincere apology?

MURPHY: Yes, it was.

WARNER: Every news report of this apology - and it made headlines around the world - begins after that moment in the room, after they went down to the lobby to shake hands in front of the press. Mitsubishi executives told me that for them to feel free to apologize so sincerely, they had to do it away from the camera eye. For this public apology to work, it had to be done in private.

INSKEEP: NPR's Gregory Warner, host of Rough Translation. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Gregory Warner is the host of NPR's Rough Translation, a podcast about how things we're talking about in the United States are being talked about in some other part of the world. Whether interviewing a Ukrainian debunker of Russian fake news, a Japanese apology broker navigating different cultural meanings of the word "sorry," or a German dating coach helping a Syrian refugee find love, Warner's storytelling approach takes us out of our echo chambers and leads us to question the way we talk about the world. Rough Translation has received the Lowell Thomas Award from the Overseas Press Club and a Scripps Howard Award.