Clemens Wergin: Why Japan Needs to Come to Terms with History as Germany Has

Roundup: Talking About History

Clemens Wergin, in the London Financial Times (5-10-05):

[The writer is an editorial writer for the German daily Der Tagesspiegel]

This week, memories of German atrocities again feature in media headlines around the world. That the past has not disappeared - neither for Germany nor for its neighbours - is a fact the majority of Germans have come to accept. Perhaps the Japanese, too, should not have been surprised that their history came back with a vengeance this year, in the form of anti-Japanese riots throughout China and complaints about Japan's failure to come to terms with its history of aggression in east Asia.

Some Koreans, Chinese and others say Japan should look to Germany as an example when dealing with its history. This may seem a little unfair, to elevate Japanese war crimes, as atrocious as they might have been, to the level of the genocidal politics of Nazi Germany. But it is still valid to ask why Japan has not dealt squarely with its past in the way Germany has. There are many aspects of the German experience from which Japan could learn, especially now that east Asian countries are looking for new forms of regional integration.

On a recent visit to Japan, at the height of the anti-Japanese violence in China, I encountered some strange notions held by politicians from the ruling Liberal Democratic party about the German experience. A relatively young member of parliament explained solemnly why it was easier for Germans to deal with their past: "You could blame everything on Hitler", he said. "We instead had to keep the emperor because the Americans wanted it that way." Others, such as Nobutaka Machimura, Japan's foreign minister, have a different twist on this idea, that the Germans were able to absolve the nation by using Hitler as an easy scapegoat. Mr Machimura said: "The Germans could blame everything bad on the Nazis by almost arguing that the Nazis were a different race."

In truth, the opposite is the case. While in the early post-war years there was a tendency in German society to put the blame for war crimes on just a small number of Nazi leaders, this notion began faltering from the days of the 1968 student revolt when the young generation demanded that their parents account for Germany's war crimes. And in heated public debate that has spanned four decades, Germans had to face the fact that a significant part of society was complicit in Nazi crimes - from industry that employed millions of forced workers to the Wehrmacht that perpetrated war crimes, especially in eastern Europe, and scientists who were eager to experiment on prisoners in Auschwitz. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that now - especially in commemorative years such as this - history is becoming a German obsession, not least in the media, summed up by this week's headline in Die Zeit: "Can the Germans be trusted?" There are many Germans - not only neo-nazis - who think the past is remembered far too often. But there is also broad consensus in politics and public opinion that official and public expressions of remorse and repentance are an appropriate way of remembering German atrocities. As Horst Kohler, the German president, noted in a commemorative ceremony on Sunday: "We have the responsibility to keep the memory of all this suffering awake . . . There is no end to the debate (about the past)."

There seems to be no such consensus in Japanese society to scrutinise the past and keep it alive. In recent years, school textbooks have begun again to gloss over or omit war crimes such as the 1937 Nanking massacre. In a recent book on Japan's attitude to its history, Sven Saaler, a German historian, shows that Japanese textbooks began portraying the war more critically in the 1980s and early 1990s. This trend has now been reversed under the pressure of revisionist lobby groups.

There are many reasons why Japan has taken such a different approach to Germany. One is the US-orchestrated decision to retain the emperor as head of state. This made it difficult to talk about responsibility for war atrocities. Another lies in the atomic bombing of Japan. The huge death toll and horror of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings made it easier for Japanese to feel like victims instead of perpetrators of the war. ...


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