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‘The Wages of Guilt: Memories of War in Germany and Japan’: Is it fair to compare wartime experiences?

by

Special To The Japan Times

Despite regular, if sometimes half-hearted apologies, China and South Korea have repeatedly accused Japan of being unrepentant and insincere in its attitude to World War II. The nation’s acceptance of defeat and acknowledgment or denial of guilt is most often compared with that of Germany.

The Wages of Guilt: Memories of War in Germany and Japan, by Ian Buruma.
344 pages
NEW YORK PREVIEW BOOKS, Nonfiction.

Ian Buruma’s book was, surprisingly, the first time anyone bothered exploring these assumptions in any depth. He rejects lazy cultural presumptions about “saving face” and other Asian stereotypes versus a Judeo-Christian confessional attitude — ideas so often trotted out to explain the discrepancy between Germany’s perceived repentance and Japan’s apparent equivocation. Instead, he focuses on geopolitical differences in the aftermath of the conflict. He describes how “the end of the Third Reich in Germany was a complete break in history” while “Japan continued to be governed by much the same bureaucratic and political elite,” putting each nation on different trajectories from the first. The division of Germany into East and West and the realities of Cold War politics in Asia and the utilization of Japan by the U.S. during the Korean and Vietnam wars also “politicized and polarized” views of history.

Buruma is a compelling writer and his personal involvement with the research —traveling to both countries and interviewing people on every side of the issue — raises this book far beyond a dry sociological study.

Read archived reviews of Japanese classics at jtimes.jp/essential.