Dealing with wartime responsibility: how Germany and Japan face the past

July 17, 1994|By Ian Johnson

For almost 50 years, Westerners have been engaged in a novel pursuit: trying to hold countries permanently responsible for evil acts they once committed. While retribution and lingering hatred have long been a part of international relations, these feelings usually ebbed and flowed after a war or other event faded into the past.

But fascination with responsibility for World War II shows little sign of abating. It's not that the victors are punishing the vanquished, but a widespread consensus exists that Germany and Japan, especially the former, ought to bear some sort of eternal responsibility (although not guilt) for the wars, atrocities and genocide that they unleashed in the 1930s and '40s.

With this in mind, journalist and essayist Ian Buruma has decided to write about a topic that has never been tackled: a comparison of how Germany and Japan deal with their responsibility for World War II.

Comparisons are tricky, and Mr. Buruma makes clear that he is not equating the two countries' actions of 50 years ago. The Germans committed genocide and, although the Japanese were smitten with an equally racist view of the world, they didn't

attempt a methodical destruction of their imagined demons.

Still, a comparison is valid because World War II is the event that still defines both countries -- although, as Mr. Buruma shows, in somewhat different ways.

Because the Holocaust was such a turning point, such a horrible act and so utterly inexcusable by any sane person, the Germans (at least the West Germans) seemed to have been shocked into admitting guilt and taking responsibility. Reparations, however inadequate and grudging, were made and the country's political and intellectual elite has been amazingly united in condemning the Nazi period and apologizing for their forefathers' actions.

While the West has been strict with Germany -- any lapse has been met with a strict rap across the knuckles -- it has allowed West Germany (and now a unified Germany) full rehabilitation. ,, DTC Except for lingering disagreement over where its troops may serve, Germany is a full-fledged international player that, by and large, is not feared by its neighbors.

As this view of Germany implies, Mr. Buruma pretty much likes the way Germany has dealt with the war.

While far from being model world citizens and still reminded daily of their country's past, most Germans are able to discuss the past objectively and distinguish between the good guys and the bad guys, even though they themselves were once the baddies.

Japan, by contrast, was treated differently and unevenly by the United States. The state folk religion of Shintoism was condemned, films heavily censored and discussion of Hiroshima Nagasaki taboo. Most lasting was insistence on a constitution that castrated the country politically, forbidding it from manning an army and thus making it permanently subservient to the United States.

At the same time, the United States spared the emperor trial for endorsing Japan's aggressive war but put on trial relative small fry, a strategic blunder that made any justice seem like victor's justice. By contrast, the Nuremberg trials in Germany produced no long-lasting resentment because they addressed crimes against humanity -- primarily the Holocaust -- rather than just for starting a war of aggression, a crime that most countries have committed.

Maybe most damning for Japan's long-term development was that as soon as the Korean War broke out in 1950, any pretense of fostering a pacifist Japan was ditched in favor of stoking up Japan's industrial might, while outside interest in Japanese internal affairs ebbed. This led, for example, to the Japanese installing as prime minister the man responsible for its wartime slave-labor policies -- without a peep from the West.

The result, Mr. Buruma implies, is that the Japanese have a warped view of their past, much more so than the Germans.

It's a conclusion that's hard to dispute, especially when one just thinks of recent events -- the Japanese justice minister who questioned the existence of the "Rape of Nanking," the much-celebrated conquest of the Chinese southern capital that was accompanied by hundreds of thousands of grisly murders. Of course, still taboo in Japanese textbooks is a halfway honest discussion of the war itself, which is crudely whitewashed.

Most surprising was Mr. Buruma's depiction of the near-unanimity with which Japanese view the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The U.S. view that the bombings were horrific but probably saved lives (an invasion of Japan, made unnecessary by the bombings, would have cost many more deaths), is as discredited in Japan as questioning the Holocaust is in this country.

Mr. Buruma does a deft job of describing these two countries' current mental states. He has written on both countries before and has impressive command of Japanese and German sources -- fluent in both languages, he is able to discuss a Japanese movie or German TV show with ease.

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