HARING THE BURDEN OF THE PAST: Legacies of War in Europe, America and Asia, edited by Andrew Horvat and Gebhard Hielscher. Tokyo: The Asia Foundation & Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, 2003, 341 pp., 1,000 yen (paper).

The legacies of war continue to dog Japan and are divisive at home and in Asia. Despite the government’s position that all war-related reparation claims have been resolved, lawsuits and anger among Japan’s victims indicate that resolution and reconciliation remain elusive. As a result, Japan remains in the dock and on the defensive. In contrast, Andrew Horvat comments, “the European example of successful reconciliation is an unmoveable fact.”

This collection of papers drawn from two symposiums hosted in Tokyo by the Asia Foundation and the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung in 2001 and 2002 examine Japan’s history textbook and forced labor controversies in the context of related experiences in Europe and the United States. Conference participants examine how Germany, Italy, France and the U.S. have dealt with teaching about the past and what Japan might learn from these efforts. In light of Japan’s often tense relations with China and Korea stemming from disagreements over their shared history, the largely successful efforts by Germany to craft mutually acceptable narratives of the past with France and Poland are both instructive and encouraging.

Why do history textbooks matter? As Mark Selden points out, “Textbooks are important vehicles through which contemporary societies transmit ideas of citizenship and both the idealized past and the promised future of the national community. They provide authoritative narratives of the nation, delimit proper behavior of citizens, and outline the parameters of the national imagination. Textbook controversies erupt when prevailing assumptions about national unity and purpose are challenged and when international relations change rapidly as in the post-Cold War era and post 9/11, sometimes rupturing the smooth flow of earlier dominant narratives.” He adds, “The central problem of history textbooks — by no means limited to American history textbooks — that address issues of war and nationality is nationalist myopia, often tinged with racism. This is particularly true where textbook treatments are lashed to the chariot of triumphalist state power.”

Hoei Fujisawa reminds us that, “In Japan, neither the government nor the public seems to take into account the political and diplomatic dimensions of the debate over high school history textbooks. History, after all, is not just about the past but the present and future as well. How Japan handles its history textbook problems gives us an indication of what kind of future the country envisions for itself.”

Gebhard Hielscher suggests that the strong continuities in wartime and postwar Japan, compared to Germany, help explain why it has not been as forthright in facing the past. Whereas the Japanese government has not investigated or prosecuted any Japanese for war crimes, the German courts have convicted and sentenced about 6,500 war criminals and investigations continue to this day. Regarding compensation for wartime slave labor, he argues that, “It is the lack of a comparable political will that has prevented Japan from facing up to its own past — not treaties or statutes of limitation.”

Otto Lambsdorff recounts his role and experiences in negotiating a recent settlement on behalf of the German government and industry with former forced laborers. In 1944, nearly one quarter of Germany’s workforce, totaling more than 7 million workers, were forced laborers. More than half were from the Soviet Union while most of the others were from eastern European countries. Due to the Cold War, compensation for these communist bloc victims was not in the cards. Following the fall of the Iron Curtain, the German government financed reconciliation foundations in Warsaw, Minsk, Moscow and Kiev that identified and paid small sums of compensation to 1.5 million former forced laborers during the 1990s. This money was drawn from public funds. However, it was not until 1999 that the German government decided to negotiate a comprehensive and conclusive settlement for such victims financed by German industry.

Lambsdorff notes that it was not an easy task to raise the necessary funds because, “we were too optimistic by far and underestimated the resistance and narrow-mindedness of many companies.” He adds, “Without doing too much honor to American class-action lawyers, one has to admit that the claims they raised against German companies greatly increased the latter’s willingness to engage in serious talks so long after the war.” Thus, it was not so much fear of losing the lawsuits, but rather concern about corporate images in the all important U.S. market that motivated German firms to act.

The money was only a token of atonement since there was no way to compensate people for what they suffered. The painful process of reconciliation has taught Germany the need for sensitivity and empathy in dealing with victims, and to recognize that blank checks are no substitute for sincere contrition. Victims want public and unqualified acknowledgment of their suffering and the injustice of what they were made to endure. They seek demonstrations of remorse through gracious gestures, words and deeds.

Why does the past hound Japan more than other countries? Why have its efforts at reconciliation fallen so far short? Japan often appears unrepentant even though government leaders have apologized for the past. Their apologies were precisely because some prominent politicians and pundits insist on an exonerating version of Japan’s regional rampage, seeking refuge in quibbling justifications, mitigating circumstances or noble intentions. Time and again they derail reconciliation. Victims seeking compensation are often treated with little compassion and portrayed as little more than extortionists.

Thus the question may be why reconciliation, and a frank rendering of history necessary thereto, remains such a divisive battle within Japan. Ian Buruma suggests that the battle over history is connected to larger political battles over revision of the constitution, especially Article 9. Article 9 supposedly restricts Japan’s development of armed forces and constrains its security policies, although one could argue that these have been routinely evaded and are now a dead letter. Those favoring a warts-and-all history seek to prevent revision of Article 9 by reminding people what the military can get up to if it is not kept on a short leash. In contrast, according to Buruma, the “minimizers and mitigators” present an airbrushed narrative to overcome what they deem a masochistic history, one that has left many Japanese allergic to even the slightest whiff of militarism.

Hoei Fujisawa suggests that history has become a convenient weapon for Japan’s neighbors who saw it hand over $13 billion for the Gulf War. He believes that, “checkbook diplomacy has set back the prospects of historical reconciliation in East Asia. Leaders in nearby countries can be forgiven for thinking that if they raise historical grievances with Japan, they can count on Japan writing a check to settle the matter.”

Yoshio Kisa suggests that Germany is not a good model for Japan to grapple with its historical burdens, pointing out that there are still many taboo subjects and that Germans have exonerated themselves by shifting all of the blame onto the Nazis. In his opinion, the false dichotomy between “bad” Germans and “good” Germans has permitted a collective evasion of responsibility. This reading of German postwar history is challenged by Wolfgang Hopken, a German participant, who notes that this is an outdated and thoroughly discredited interpretation and one absent from public debate for the “past several decades.”

The editors have performed a valuable and timely service in sponsoring a public debate on these controversies and making the proceedings accessible in English and Japanese in this bilingual volume. One can only hope that this volume stimulates further consideration in government and business circles about the virtues and modes of reconciliation and settlement. The recent spate of lawsuits filed in Japan’s courts by former forced laborers from China and South Korea ensures that the past lingers unpleasantly. Unfortunately, the bold political will of German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder in turning the page is not evident in his Japanese counterpart, a prime minister who seems intent on being remembered as Mr. Yasukuni.

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