How Japan and Germany remember their military pasts

IN 1990, when George Bush opted for war in the Persian Gulf, the governments of Japan and newly unified Germany were criticized in the United States for hiding behind their peace constitutions and providing money but not troops for the allied effort.

The new economic superpowers (so the argument went) had drawn the wrong lessons from their past failures and had resisted American importuning on the use of military force. How reliable could they be in managing future crises when they were so distrustful of themselves? Was it not time for them to separate history and memory?

Journalist Ian Buruma never poses that question directly, though it is the political premise behind his survey of war memories and strategies for linking the present and past in postwar Germany and Japan. In ``The Wages of Guilt: Memories of War in Germany and Japan,'' he maintains that the former Axis partners share a deep distrust of themselves stemming from the events of the 1930s and 1940s. Although German crimes have a special nature and the German and Japanese predicaments are clearly not the same, there are analogous features in the way the two peoples have remembered them.

Essentially, the Germans have developed a democratic polity and subjectively acknowledged their Nazi past. They appear more willing to publicly apologize for the criminality of their fascist state than the Japanese, most of whom do not remember their lost war as one of aggression. In Buruma's view, the (West) Germans have done a better job of acknowledging the enormities of their history and are less likely to have nostalgia for their old partnership with Japan since they no longer see ``their own purported virtues'' of martial spirit, racial purity, self-sacrifice, and discipline reflected in the other.

To explain this difference, as well as the generational gap in remembrance within Germany and Japan, Buruma sampled opinion from many people in both countries. In a work of unusual reach, he touches briefly on war-crimes trials, economic miracles, and the role of the Allies. But he mainly concentrates his analysis on the literary record - popular movie scripts, television dramas, famous works of fiction - together with the visual remains and representations of the past, in order to see how the Third Reich and militarist Japan are really remembered.

Buruma focuses on three events that have left the deepest scars on the collective memories of Germans and Japanese and, since the 1980s, have been central to their search for new national identities: Auschwitz, an annihilation camp that symbolizes the German genocide of the Jewish people; the Nanjing massacre, symbol of Japan's war on China; and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which many Japanese regard as the site of their ``martyred innocence'' - a symbol of ``absolute evil, often compared to Auschwitz.''

Buruma believes that a ``different Germany'' perpetrated the crimes of extermination that Auschwitz denotes. He argues that it is unwise for the post-1968 generation of Germans, grandchildren of the perpetrators, to feel accountable and troubled by the issue of national identity - and thereby incorrectly implies that it is possible to omit the past from any formulation of identity.

Hiroshima evokes his reflections on the ``tension between its universal aspirations and its status as the exclusive site of Japanese victimhood.'' Buruma points out how leftists and liberals use the Nanjing massacre to express guilt and shame at Japanese militarism and the emperor cult. Revisionists then respond by denying that war atrocities ever occurred.

Unfortunately, Buruma pronounces both the Nuremberg (1945-46) and Tokyo (1946-48) trials historical failures and repeats the arguments of their detractors. He cites approvingly the initial British position, rejected by President Roosevelt, that the German leaders should have been summarily executed. He also endorses the stigma of vengeful ``victors' justice'' which Nazi defenders used to impugn the legitimacy of the trials. Strangely, Buruma believes that Nuremberg and the later trials of German war criminals did not ``necessarily serve the truth'' because the Allies sought to teach ``a moral history lesson'' to the Germans.

But if Nuremberg is to be criticized, these are surely the wrong reasons for doing so. Had Churchill been given his way, the principles of international law would not have been advanced and those in the present day who deny the Holocaust would not have to contend with massive proof of German criminality.

The Tokyo trials also had their shortcomings and left unexplained the political responsibility of the Japanese people for criminal acts against Chinese, Koreans, and the occupied peoples of Southeast Asia. Above all, they failed to indict Emperor Hirohito who had played the key leadership role throughout the war.

Since Hirohito never apologized for the crimes committed in his name, most of the population found it difficult to believe that they had done anything wrong, other than to have lost the holy war. Yet here too, except in the most formal sense, Buruma's charge of ``victors' justice'' is superfluous to the critique of the trials. The emperor, and many other ``moderates'' whom the US supported, participated secretly and indirectly in selecting most of the military men who stood trial in Tokyo.

What the dominant representations of World War II will be in Germany and Japan in the next century cannot be foretold. But the roles these two nations play hereafter on the world stage is certain to be tied to how they analyze their past failures and what and how they rememeber.

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