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No consensus

Interview: Gabriel DomínguezApril 8, 2015

German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently urged Japan to mend post-war ties with its Asian neighbors. Professor Ian Buruma talks to DW about the differences in how the Japanese and Germans perceive their wartime guilt.

Bildergalerie chinesisch-japanische Beziehungen Zweiter Japanisch-Chinesischer Krieg
Image: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-S34828 / CC-BY-SA

Even almost seven decades after the end of the World War II, Japan continues to be accused by neighboring countries such as China and South Korea of not being earnest about accepting its wartime past and expressing remorse.

With his attempts to re-interpret Japan's post-war pacifist constitution and a more nationalistic tone, Japanese PM Shinzo Abe hasn't helped either. However, he has said he intends to release a fresh statement expressing remorse over Japan's actions to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the end of the war this year.

Referring to Germany's own experience, German Chancellor Angela Merkel reminded Japan in a visit to the country in March of the need to squarely confront the Asian nation's wartime past. But the chancellor also signaled that neighboring countries must do their part to achieve reconciliation.

Even though China has marked the end of World War II in a low-key manner in the past, Beijing wants to organize a huge parade this September to officially commemorate the "victory day of the Chinese people's war of resistance against Japanese aggression".

President Xi Jinping's administration has reportedly invited Abe to attend the event. But it is unclear if the Japanese PM would be present at the ceremony that also includes a military march.

In a DW interview, Ian Buruma, Professor of Human Rights and Journalism in the US, and author of several books including "Year Zero: A History of 1945 ," talks about why views on World War II are so polarized in Japan, and argues that history has become part of a debate on the country's postwar constitutional order.

Ian Buruma
Buruma: 'Japanese atrocities in China and Southeast Asia were barbarous, but not part of a systematic extermination campaign'Image: Merlijn Doomernik

DW: What do you think are the main differences between how Germans and Japanese come to terms with their wartime past?

Ian Buruma: The main difference is that there is a basic consensus in Germany about the past: only neo-Nazis would still defend the Third Reich. In Japan, there is no such consensus.

Even the prime minister (Abe) shares the revisionist view of other rightwing nationalists that Japan's war in Asia was not entirely dishonorable, and that stories of such wartime atrocities as the Nanjing Massacre of 1937 are deliberately exaggerated by Chinese propaganda and Japanese leftists.

The reasons that views on World War II history are so polarized are complex. First of all, the history of the war itself is not entirely comparable to Germany's. There was no Japanese Hitler, or even a Nazi Party. The Japanese Empire fought a war with Western imperial powers in Asia.

Japanese atrocities in China and Southeast Asia were barbarous, but not part of a systematic extermination campaign, comparable to the Holocaust. Japanese troops killed many innocent people, but not because an entire race had to be annihilated for ideological reasons.

The political reason for Japan's polarized view of history goes back to 1945. While the Nazi regime could be blamed for the war in Europe, the Japanese war was blamed on "militarism" and the "samurai culture." Thus, the Americans wrote a pacifist constitution for Japan in 1946, outlawing the use of military force.

Bildergalerie chinesisch-japanische Beziehungen Japan. Einmarsch in Nanking
'Japan's rightwing nationalists believe wartime atrocities such as the Nanjing Massacre are deliberately exaggerated by Chinese propaganda and Japanese leftists'Image: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-U1002-502 / CC-BY-SA

The Japanese left, as well as much of public opinion, accept this as a necessary price to pay for Japan's war crimes. And so, the nationalist right, which wishes to revise the pacifist constitution, argues that there was nothing uniquely bad, or unusual about Japan's war, hence the historical revisionism. In short, history has become part of a debate on the postwar constitutional order of Japan.

Conservative politicians in Japan repeatedly deny that there was ever forced prostitution during WWII, downplay the Nanjing massacre and cause outrage in the region when they visit the Yasukuni Shrine. Why isn't there any major public indignation in Japan over these actions?

There is public indignation in Japan about these things. But the main opposition to rightwing nationalism always came from the left, which used to be strongly represented in the left-of-centre press, the universities, and the trade unions.

Like everywhere else in the world, the voice of the leftwing has become much weaker in the last few decades. The readership of the leftish Asahi newspaper is fast shrinking. Universities are much less influenced by Marxism than before. As a result, rightwing revisionism has gained in strength.

After nuclear bombs were dropped in Hiroshima and Nagasaki there was a sense among the Japanese that they were not only perpetrators, but also victims. Do you think this view has played a role to this day in shaping the way the Japanese deal with their past?

It plays a role, to be sure. But the bombs were widely seen as a punishment for what Japan had done to others during the war. This feeling might now have decreased. As is true in Germany, younger generations in Japan are sometimes resentful about being made to feel guilty, or even responsible, for a war which young people cannot remember, or even know very much about.

In your view, how should Japan and Japanese society face the issue of wartime guilt and who could set this process in motion?

More should be done to deal with the wartime past honestly in Japanese education, starting at high schools. Unfortunately, this will be resisted by the current government, which wants to promote so-called patriotic education, fostering national pride, rather than reflection on a dark national past. It has not helped much that critical history in Japan was so heavily influenced by Marxist ideology. This makes revisionism today easier.

In Europe, post-war Germany launched many initiatives such as school exchange programs and city partnerships with countries affected by the war to bring about reconciliation. What role do you see such programs play in the case of Japan?

Such programs could be useful and no doubt take place, albeit on a smaller scale than in Europe. But it takes two sides to make a success out of such initiatives. The Chinese and Koreans have to be receptive, and this is not always the case. Besides, it is not easy having an open dialogue with China, since opinion, on historical matters as much as on contemporary politics, is so tightly controlled. So, yes, Japan should perhaps do more to affect reconciliation, but it cannot do so unilaterally.

What part should the Japanese emperor play in this process?

There is not much the emperor can do. His job is to be uncontroversial. But in fact, both the former emperor and the current one have made it clear that Japan should reflect on the war and remember Japan's past victims. In this respect, the emperor is to the left of the prime minister.

China has invited Japanese PM Shinzo Abe to commemorate in the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII. In your view, should Abe take part in this event? Why?

Yes, I think Abe should attend. Any chance of reconciliation should be taken. Staying away will only perpetuate an atmosphere of mutual hostility that serves neither China, nor Japan well.

Shinzo Abe Japan Premierminister
PM Abe wants to re-interpret Japan's post-war pacifist constitutionImage: Getty Images/Jiji Press

Germany has dealt intensively with its past and stands resolutely against any form of National Socialism. Still, Nazi comparisons are made quite often, particularly in times of crises such as the ongoing euro crisis. Does this mean Germany has not completely succeeded in convincing its partners to overcome the past?

I do not believe that many Europeans seriously think contemporary Germany has anything to do with Nazism. There is some rhetoric of this nature in Greece, to be sure, but that is the result of bitterness over Greece's economic plight, which is blamed on Germany.

It is possible, even likely, that Germany's growing power in Europe will be resented for one reason or another, especially if that power is not used wisely, with sensitivity to the interests of other nations.

This might even lead to some overheated rhetoric about Nazis. But I think Germany has convinced other countries that it has overcome its past. In fact, the last people who needed to be convinced of this were not foreigners, but the Germans themselves - think of the hysteria among the left during the Deutschland in Herbst period.

Ian Buruma is the author of many books, including The Wages of Guilt: Memories of War in Germany and Japan (1995), The Missionary and the Libertine: Love and War in East and West (1996), Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo Van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance (2006), and Year Zero: A History of 1945 (2013). He is the Paul W. Williams Professor of Human Rights and Journalism at Bard College in New York.