TOKYO — Fifty-two years and 50 weeks after the event, Japan's government finally apologized Monday for failing to break off diplomatic negotiations before launching the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor that pulled the United States into World War II.
"There can be no excuse," the Foreign Ministry said, for Japan's delay in delivering a message to Washington on Dec. 7, 1941, that it would negotiate no longer. The official apology was prompted by the routine declassification of a new batch of documents relating to that fateful day.
But Monday's apology for Japanese diplomats' "deeply regrettable" conduct was not addressed to the United States, the victim of the attack. Rather, said Foreign Ministry spokesman Terusuke Terada, "the statement was directed to the people of Japan."
Why does the government feel a need to apologize to its own people for deceiving another nation half a century ago?
The answer involves the generalized concept of shame in Japanese society, and the particular sense of shame many Japanese feel about the beginning of World War II.
In the fall of 1941, the United States and Japan tried one last round of negotiations to resolve their angry dispute over Japanese aggression against China. While the talks were going on, a Japanese naval task force secretly sailed for Hawaii to attack Pearl Harbor.
On the morning of Dec. 7--or Dec. 8, on Japan's side of the international dateline--Japan's Foreign Ministry sent a final message to the State Department. It was supposed to be delivered at 1 p.m. Washington time, just 25 minutes before the raid was to begin. With characteristic vagueness, the cable did not clearly declare war or threaten attack.
Even the Japanese diplomats at the embassy in Washington did not understand this to be a warning of imminent attack. They took their time in typing an English version and did not deliver the message until an hour after Pearl Harbor had been bombed.