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Families of Japanese Submarine Victims Reject Captain’s Apology

By Doug Struck

Families of victims of the Japanese vessel sunk by a U.S. submarine rejected the statement of “sincere regret” offered Sunday by the captain of the sub and remained perplexed that the commander has not apologized in person.

U.S. efforts to limit ill will -- including apologies by the president, two Cabinet members, top military officers and the ambassador to Japan -- have stumbled over what Japanese see as a fundamental requirement: the personal apology of the person at fault.

“You can call it a cultural difference. But for us, it’s just obvious and common sense for someone to apologize if he does something wrong,” said Kayoko Yoneda, head of a support group for the victims’ families in Uwajima, home port of the fisheries training vessel sunk Feb. 9 with the loss of nine lives.

Until Sunday, the USS Greeneville’s captain, Scott Waddle had declined -- apparently to limit his legal liability -- to discuss the accident in which his sub surfaced beneath the ship Ehime Maru.

In Japan it would be unthinkable for a major accident to occur, especially one involving fatalities, without a prompt, public show of apology. Top corporate and government officials often visit the houses of victims to make such apologies.

The written statement issued through a lawyer’s office Sunday by Waddle, in which he offered “my most sincere regret” and said “no words can adequately express my condolences,” was received here by many Japanese as too little, too late and too impersonal.

“Frankly speaking, at this stage, we don’t even know if he wrote it. We can’t see him and we don’t hear him,” said Shunsuke Terata, 15, the brother of Yasuke Terata, one of four teen-age students presumed drowned in the wreck. “It’s so late, it does not convey his sincerity.”

The families’ displeasure at the American handling of the incident, ranging from the initial reaction of the sub crew to the revelations about civilians on board to the apology, has been mirrored by the Japanese public. Although the strategic ties between the United States and Japan are unlikely to be changed, the public mood here has soured over what many Japanese see as a mishandling of the aftermath of the accident by the American Navy.

To try to lessen stains in the relations between the two allies, President Bush is sending Admiral William Fallon to Japan on Tuesday as a special envoy. Fallon is expected to give a personal letter of apology from Bush to Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori.

“President Bush’s actions and apologies have come very fast, and that was good. But he is, after all, a ‘third person,’” said Tamotsu Aoki, a professor of cultural policies at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo.