Owning up to World War II actions

Remorse: Germany and Japan faced different circumstances in acknowledging guilt.

April 24, 2005|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

An article in the Perspective section last Sunday included a quote which implied that no Japanese political leader had won the Nobel Peace Prize. Eisaku Sato, former prime minister of Japan, shared the prize in 1974 for his work against nuclear weapons.

In the past few weeks, China has brought new passion to an old argument with Japan, journeying to the past for evidence that its Asian rival is not worthy of international leadership in the future.

The issue is six decades old -- Japan's not accepting responsibility for its actions in what turned into World War II. Demonstrators throughout China have once again expressed their displeasure at Japanese high school history textbooks that they say do not adequately depict Japanese atrocities during that war.

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi attempted to cool the crisis on Friday by offering an unexpected but carefully couched "heartfelt apology" for the "tremendous damage and suffering" inflicted by Japan during World War II."

But China was in no hurry to accept.

The subtext is China's attempt to thwart Japanese ambitions, including its move for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.

As their more-than-a-millennium rivalry for dominance in Asia moves into the 21st century, the Chinese have found history and memory to be one of their most potent weapons.

Scholars agree that compared with Germany, Japan has botched the issue of acknowledging its guilt in World War II, giving the Chinese and others an opening for these attacks.

But the comparison is not one of clear contrast, as German apologies were motivated by much more than altruism, while Japan faced a different set of circumstances when it confronted the issue of owning up to its past after the war.

When Americans think of World War II in the Pacific, there is the outrage of Pearl Harbor, the savagery of Bataan and Iwo Jima, and, for many, the guilt of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In the years after the Japanese surrender, an American occupation led by Gen. Douglas MacArthur seemed to remake Japan as an Asian United States. The former combatants shook hands and admired each other's courage and honor. The history was agreed upon. The war was in the past.

The view is different in Asia -- where many countries were conquered and became parts of an empire held together by brutal oppression.

There, many say they are still awaiting signs of humble contrition and apology of the type that has come from Germany over its role in that war.

"Certainly the Japanese tried to avoid facing up to the past in the way that the Germans did," says Thomas Berger, a professor of political science at Boston University who wrote Cultures of Antimilitarism: National Security in Germany and Japan, considered the definitive study comparing the postwar attitudes of the two countries.

Jeffrey Herf, a historian of Germany at the University of Maryland says the United States has no real complaint in this matter.

"Germany reconciled with the United States no more nor less than Japan reconciled with the United States," he says. "... The dramatic difference is between the way Germany dealt with Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union and Jews, and the way the Japanese dealt with the rest of Asia."

But the Germans had little choice. Unlike the Japanese, they did not live on an island, but cheek by jowl with the countries they had invaded. Germany was also facing universal denunciation for its murder of 6 million Jews.

Though Berger says German apologies -- which took the concrete form of extensive aid for the new country of Israel -- were undoubtedly sincere, the Germans recognized that they were in their self-interest.

"There were very hard-nosed calculations of self-interest on both sides," he says.

Germany had similar reconciliation programs with Holland and France in the immediate postwar years, going so far as to appoint a commission with the French to write the history of the war and occupation, to avoid the kind of squabbles going on between Japan and China.

It was the 1970s -- the era of detente between the United States and the Soviet Union and so-called ostpolitik in Germany -- that saw German leaders apologizing to countries to its east that had suffered the worst of Nazi atrocities. This has gone on to this day -- reparations paid to war slaves six decades later as German businesses move into former communist countries.

In December 1970, West German Chancellor Willy Brandt went to Warsaw, Poland, and sent an unmistakable image out to the world when he fell to his knees before the monument at the site of the Jewish ghetto.

"Some of his German constituents hit the roof," Herf says. "It was very unpopular in some circles. But it was a very important breakthrough because Brandt sent out a signal to people who didn't speak German -- who might not have known the ins and outs of this history -- that this is a different Germany. This is a new Germany."

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