Preface: Unfinished Business: Apology Cultures in the Asia Pacific

By Sue Kossew and Beatrice Trefalt

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This special section of Australian Humanities Review, entitled ‘Unfinished Business: Apology Cultures in the Asia Pacific’, arose out of a Monash University Arts Faculty Interdisciplinary Research Project of the same name. This project brought together an interdisciplinary team across the fields of Literary Studies, History, Film, and Cultural Studies, encompassing aspects of law, human rights and ethics. The project sought to understand how various forms of cultural practice and narrative mediate our comprehension of the past and of ongoing human interactions within and between nation-states, in particular, of past, present and future social and cultural interactions that coalesce around the material and symbolic consequences of apology in the Asia Pacific region.

Official apologies by nation states to peoples and countries they have wronged have become a deeply current issue. The view that this phenomenon is now a significant social force is widely held across a number of scholarly disciplines such as politics, history, law and human rights studies. These studies have yielded important knowledge about why apologies are given or refused. Yet to date there has been remarkably little attention paid to the question of method. Our central hypothesis was that narratives and memories of past traumas transmitted through mass cultural forms (such as autobiography, historical dramas, television documentary) are crucial to understanding the politics of official apologies. Our aim over the course of the project (which included two research workshops, one in Prato, Italy and one in Melbourne) was to produce a new interdisciplinary methodology, encompassing the study of film, history and literature influenced by Tessa Morris-Suzuki’s notion that ‘it is helpful to think about “reconciliation as method”—not as an end-point in which consensus on history is achieved, but rather as sets of media, skills and processes that encourage the creative sharing of ideas and understandings about the past.’

The two workshops helped to develop an approach that sought to account for the material conditions of the production and reception of texts that contextualise national apologies/non-apologies and mediate remembrance and recognition. The first workshop established broad parameters for the project that enabled individual researchers to consider their own disciplinary approach within the context of inter-disciplinary perspectives. The second workshop, led by Tessa Morris-Suzuki (who has written the Introduction to this special section), focussed on the notion of ‘reconciliation as method’, and it is from this workshop that this set of essays has emerged.

As co-editors of this special section, we would like to thank Rosalind McFarlane for her work as research assistant on preparing the materials for publication, including arranging blind refereeing. We would like to acknowledge the support of the Arts Faculty at Monash University as this group of scholars would not have been able to work collaboratively or participate in the workshops without the award of a Faculty Interdisciplinary Research Project grant. Tessa Morris-Suzuki was particularly generous with her time and expertise and we thank her, as well as our colleagues from Goethe Frankfurt University, Frank Schultze-Engler and Sissy Helff, who joined our first workshop in Prato. Finally, thanks to Monique Rooney as Editor of the journal and to the anonymous reviewers who provided their valuable input.


Sue Kossew holds degrees from the Universities of Cape Town, East Anglia and New South Wales. Her work is in contemporary post-colonial literatures, with a focus on South Africa and Australia, and with particular interest in the work of J. M. Coetzee and contemporary women writers. Her publications include Pen and Power: A Post-colonial Reading of J. M. Coetzee and André Brink (1996), Critical Essays on J. M. Coetzee (1998), Re-Imagining Africa: New Critical Perspectives (ed. with Dianne Schwerdt, 2001) and Writing Woman, Writing Place: Australian and South African Fiction (2004). She has edited a book of critical essays on the work of Kate Grenville entitled Lighting Dark Places (2010) and co-edited a collection of essays with Chris Danta and Julian Murphet, Strong Opinions: J. M. Coetzee and the Authority of Contemporary Fiction (2011). She has published numerous articles and chapters on Coetzee’s work including an annotated online bibliography on J.M. Coetzee for Oxford University Press. She holds an ARC Discovery Grant entitled ‘Rethinking the Victim: Gendered Violence in Australian Women’s Writing’ with A/Prof. Anne Brewster and is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities.

She is Professor of English and Literary Studies at Monash University and is on the editorial boards of Journal of Commonwealth Literature and The Literary Encyclopedia.


Beatrice Trefalt is Associate Professor of Japanese studies at Monash University in the School of Languages, Cultures, Literatures and Linguistics. A historian of post-war Japan, she works on legacies of World War II in Japan. She is co-author, with Sandra Wilson, Robert Cribb and Dean Aszkielowicz, of Japanese War Criminals: the Politics of Justice after World War II (Columbia University Press, 2017).


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