‘We Japanese, across generations, must squarely face the history of the past,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said in his speech last month marking the 70-year anniversary of Japan’s surrender in World War II. “We have the responsibility to inherit the past, in all humbleness, and pass it on to the future.”
This sounds similar to how politicians from Germany, the other main aggressor of WWII, recently commemorated the liberation of concentration camps. The main difference was the conclusion from German President Joachim Gauck: “There is no German identity without Auschwitz.”
This view assumes that, as a nation, the most shameful thing you have ever done is an integral part of who you are. In Germany this is largely accepted, but for most countries, such honesty about self isn’t common — or even desired.
The world over, nations must weigh historical honesty against the need for a positive self-image. The way Germans have, collectively, experienced their guilt and atonement is often cited as a model for others — especially for Japan, which has been accused of remaining unrepentant.
But the comparison with Germany, if illuminating to some extent, is not helpful as a model for others — and most certainly not for Japan. Germany’s painful self-examination is unique, caused not by outside pressure but an inner need of the Germans themselves.
The moral crusade began in the 1970s. After student revolts in the ’60s, young Germans rejected their parents and what they stood for. It was a clash of generations, with the young demanding from their parents that they come clean about who they were. It was a ruthless — at times masochistic — picking at scabs, an angry attack cutting deeply into personal shame.
” ‘What did you do in Russia (during the war)? What did you know about the Jews and the camps?’ … In 1968, we could ask these questions,” remembers German bishop Hans Christian Knuth in the book “Kriegsenkel” (“Grandchildren of War”) by Sabine Bode. “But, almost always, it was about interrogating your mother and father — about accusing them. It was about breaking the silence that covered our guilt and our failure.”
Perhaps this attack must come from the children. It is a fight for identity, a rejection of ugly heritage, and both sides pay dearly for the disclosure.
In Japan, sons and daughters do not, as a rule, shake their elders by the shoulders, demanding accountability. The culture abhors confrontation. Consideration for others demands that you sense their shame, and lay off. This leaves most Japanese at a loss when confronted about shame from outside. It is felt as a breach of tact — they have no cultural tools, emotionally or rhetorically, to respond.
Japanese students, too, challenged authority during 1960s unrest. But they would spare their own parents by not mentioning the sins of the past, settling for face-saving ambiguity.
Another cultural difference lies in the “failure” mentioned by Knuth, the bishop — a failure embodied by Auschwitz, the unmatched premeditation of evil.
In his classic analysis “The Wages of Guilt,” Ian Buruma explains how German and Japanese pasts are viewed differently in their national psyches:
“When people in Germany speak about being betroffen (shocked), they’re not really talking about the invasion of Norway — they’re talking about Auschwitz and everything that’s related to it. There isn’t really an exact analogy in Japan. The Japanese can be just as betroffen as the Germans. But you see it less, because in Japan the war is remembered much more as a misguided military conflict and not (in terms of) a nation responsible for a huge and horrendous crime.”
To many Germans, the Holocaust was a failure of Christian values, of the Enlightenment and “the country of poets and thinkers” and, most abjectly, human compassion. The question that Auschwitz begged of most Germans was “What is wrong with us?”
The approach was to analyze, and again, following national character, Germans used strict academic rigor — and long compound nouns — to get to the bottom of things. New words entered the lexicon, such as Vergangenheitsbewaeltigung (coming to terms with the past) and Erinnerungskultur (the culture of remembrance), which holds that remembering helps to avoid the repetition of mistakes.
A big puzzle to solve was the phenomenon of Gleichschaltung (“making conform”) — the way the Nazis came to control public opinion in a society that cherished free will. This led to reams of philosophical and sociological literature, and questions in history class such as “How is an individual to behave in a state based on false norms? Discuss.”
By contrast, many Japanese high school students, when asked about harmful effects of peer pressure, will cite Nazi Germany as an example. In a culture more accepting of conformity, the pernicious effects of obedience don’t occasion self-examination.
Of course, cultural differences do not absolve the Japanese from taking responsibility for their history. Overall, Japan hasn’t handled this very well, and the denial that individuals get away with can be maddening.
Still, we shouldn’t expect a German-style reconciliation, which is unlikely to ever happen. Far from a free pass, this means the onus is on the Japanese to find their own form of moral atonement — and convey it to the world.
Which brings us to pacifist identity and the rallies to preserve the postwar Constitution. All along, the obsessive devotion to peace may have served as an avatar — a projection of guilt and remorse, obliquely expressed, like other inner needs in Japan. Abe’s new identity for the country leaves the need unfulfilled, and so people revolt.
Buruma, who called pacifism “a high-minded way to dull the pain of historical guilt,” foresaw this struggle for self-identity. “Perhaps we have got the Japanese problem backward,” he wrote in 1994. “Without political responsibility — precisely over matters of war and peace — Japan cannot develop a grown-up attitude toward the past. Political change must come first; the mentality will follow.”
This may be a watershed for Japan. His autocratic approach notwithstanding, Abe has pushed the people into maturity, forcing them to take a stand. Ironically, his aim to rebrand Japan as a global player negates his desire to bury the past. Through the security bills, which would allow Japan to more easily resort to conflict, he has shaken his people out of apathy like a champion of Democracy Now.
Nicolas Gattig is a teacher and writer from San Francisco. Foreign Agenda offers a forum for opinion about issues related to Japan. Your comments and ideas: email@example.com