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  • Troubled Apologies among Japan, Korea, and the United States
  • Sarah Kovner
Troubled Apologies among Japan, Korea, and the United States. By Alexis Dudden. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008. 184 pp. $40.00 (cloth).

In recent years, the legacies of Northeast Asia's troubled twentieth century have been the subject of social activism, political posturing, and increasing academic scrutiny. Flashpoints like high-level political visits to the Yasukuni Shrine regularly cause diplomatic imbroglios, while the struggle of the military comfort women to receive recognition and compensation has provoked nationalist fervor. While not subject to the same unceasing press coverage, the question of who owns Dokdo (Takeshima) has been publicized on dry-cleaning packaging and Korean restaurant menus.

The larger subject of memory and commemoration has been a central concern of historians for the last quarter century. Alexis Dudden's latest book, based mainly on South Korean, Japanese, and U.S. web sites and media coverage, analyzes how each government has maneuvered within this arena, using apologies for their own political purposes. Rather than making an intervention in the scholarly literature, this book addresses a broader audience. The argument unfolds through a series of case studies on Dokdo, apologies, "illegal Japan," and history.

The Dokdo question demonstrates how diplomatic maneuvering leaves an opening for governments to stoke populist nationalism. The 1951 San Francisco peace treaty that ended the Allied Occupation did not mention the islands in its definition of Korea, thus allowing the Japanese to stake their claim. South Koreans, meanwhile, point to Dokdo's appearance on various sixth- and seventh-century maps to claim it as their own. Dudden stresses the U.S. role in evading the issue in 1951, but does not herself come down in favor of either South Korea or Japan.

Dudden's treatment of apologies is more provocative. She argues that they have become increasingly common in international relations as a means for governments to underscore their legitimacy. Japan, [End Page 362] often thought to be a laggard in apologizing, has in fact apologized with alacrity. But as long as politicians regularly contradict these sentiments in popular books and speeches to their own people, this international discourse will remain self-serving. Dudden's broad-strokes treatment of this complex question, however, sometimes leads her to draw dubious analogies. She writes, for instance, that "Germans deliberated their nation's attempted annihilation of the Jews but not the firebombing of Dresden, whereas Japanese ruminated on the wastelands of Hiroshima and Tokyo at the cost of confronting Japan's devastation of large parts and populations of Asia" (p. 36). The Nazis' attempted annihilation of fellow citizens would appear to present a special case, and debates in both countries in recent years have become more complex and more sophisticated.

Dudden's first book, Japan's Colonization of Korea: Discourse and Power (University of Hawai'i Press, 2004), was deeply concerned with international law in legitimizing Japan's empire, and Troubled Apologies returns to the same subject. This discussion might have benefited from greater attention to the international context and the extensive scholarly literature, but Dudden makes some important points. For example, she shows that governments have not allowed Japan's wartime sexual enslavement of Korean women to interfere with diplomatic relations in the same way as visits to Yasukuni or claims to Dokdo.

For a slim volume, Troubled Apologies is rich with insights. Readers interested in U.S. history, for instance, will also be interested in her analysis of U.S. control of information on Hiroshima and nuclear testing in the South Pacific. Ultimately Dudden argues that apologies are a way to invent the nation in the international system and that victims should also have a say. While her book raises many more questions than it answers and will provoke debate, it is well worth reading for specialists, for twentieth-century historians, and for general readers interested in a deeper understanding of the politics of history.

Sarah Kovner
University of Florida


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pp. 362-363
Launched on MUSE
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