German Remorse, Japanese Denial


By Ian Buruma

Farrar Straus Giroux x 330pp x $25

On July 14, Bastille Day, 200 German troops marched down the Champs-Elysees as part of a four-nation military parade. Some older Frenchmen were horrified to see soldiers from across the Rhine on the boulevard where Hitler's troops had once marched, but politicians hailed the event as a symbol of the new Europe.

For Germany's old World War II ally in Asia, a comparable event remains unthinkable. Even the idea of Japanese soldiers acting as U.N. peacekeepers in Cambodia worries Asian neighbors. They needn't look far for evidence that Japan hasn't changed: Consider Shigeto Nagano, the 71-year-old retired general who was forced to resign as Justice Minister in May after denying that the 1937 Rape of Nanking ever happened.

Of course, Germany is France's NATO ally and European Union partner, while Japan has no military or economic alliance with its neighbors. But that doesn't explain why the two have radically different relations with the nations they once occupied. In The Wages of Guilt: Memories of War in Germany and Japan, Ian Buruma seeks an explanation in the way the peoples and governments of the main Axis powers have dealt with the war's legacy. With both nations facing internal and foreign pressure to become greater forces in international relations, this is more than an academic question.

Few Western writers are better qualified to take on this subject. Born in Holland before the Nazi invasion, Buruma has written extensively about Japan and its role in East Asia. For this book, he travels to Berlin and Tokyo, with side trips to such killing grounds as Auschwitz and Nanking. Examining everything from concentration camps and war memorials to novels and movies, he asserts that many Germans have faced up to their past--and have expressed remorse for wartime atrocities--in a way most Japanese have not.

Although the book is divided equally between the two nations, the Japanese sections are more compelling, largely because Buruma finds many Japanese in a state of denial about the war. To visit Japanese war memorials as he depicts them is to enter a time warp. At Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine, for example, displays glorify troops "liberating" East Asia from colonialists and communists. A Shinto priest there tells Buruma "the Asian people are still grateful." On the island of Kyushu, at a memorial to kamikaze pilots who died for the Emperor, the museum director says the flyers "sincerely believed in peace."

Despite his disgust at such self-delusion, Buruma is no Japan-basher. And he avoids the tendency of many Western writers to explain the behavior of Japanese and other Asians by casting them as Oriental exotics. Do differences in culture explain why German schoolchildren read all about the concentration camps while Japanese students get only brief, sanitized accounts of Nanking and other atrocities? Buruma rejects the argument, popularized by anthropologist Ruth Benedict, that Japanese--unlike Germans, with a Judeo-Christian "guilt culture"--have a "shame culture" that makes it impossible for them to admit responsibility for what they and their countrymen did.

After Hiroshima, of course, many Japanese, believing their nation had endured the war's greatest horror, saw no reason to feel guilty. But Buruma finds his answer in political events. During the U.S. occupation, General Douglas MacArthur, worried about Japan's stability as the cold war loomed, decided that Emperor Hirohito--in whose name Japanese troops had rampaged through East Asia--need not face the war-crimes tribunal. Sparing him meant symbolic acquittal for almost everyone else, says Buruma. Hirohito "had been formally responsible for everything, and by holding him responsible for nothing, everybody was absolved."

In addition, Buruma notes, many of Japan's postwar leaders had helped spread Imperial Japan's wartime vision of a Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. Small wonder, then, that they didn't want to acknowledge war crimes. Here, Buruma draws a contrast to Germany, where Erich Honecker in the East and Willy Brandt in the West earned credibility by opposing Hitler. "Since the postwar order was not set up by Japanese who inherited the mantle of resistance against the ancien regime, feelings about the past are bound to be more ambivalent than is the case in Germany, East or West."

Not all Japanese were so willing to twist the record. One of the book's shortcomings is Buruma's failure to devote more than a few words to Okinawa, the southern island chain whose inhabitants suffered tremendous losses during the war. Okinawans long remained bitter toward the Japanese government. By leaving them out, Buruma misses the chance to air views not often heard in other parts of Japan.

Buruma also ends on an overly optimistic note. The fall of the Liberal Democratic Party in 1993 cheers him, proof that "the rascals can be thrown out." But as the new coalition of the LDP and the Socialists shows, the rascals are back. And what of bureaucrats who censor history texts? Or the handlers who recently refused to let Emperor Akihito go through with a planned visit to Pearl Harbor? Throwing them out won't be so easy. And while they're around, Japan will be hard-pressed to convince Asian neighbors that it can be trusted.

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