CULTURE AND POWER IN GERMANY AND JAPAN: The Spirit of Renewal, by Nils-Johan Jorgensen. Global Oriental, 318 pp., 2006, £50 (cloth)

The author of this interesting and thought-provoking study was a Norwegian diplomat who served in both Germany and Japan. He acquired a good knowledge of both countries and their languages. His analysis is based on careful study and not blurred by prejudice.

In examining the two countries, he writes: “Two states, two powers, were defeated in the Second World War. Yet though crushed they arose from the ashes . . . and gradually regained respect, status and leadership.

Germany and Japan have striking similarities in recent history through war and then economic and gradual political renewal but, at the same time, display a very different cultural and historical experience.”

The author brings out the differences between the two countries in their attitudes toward World War II and the horrific acts that took place in the years leading up to 1945. This means, in the case of Germany, focusing on the nature of Nazism, the Holocaust, and German feelings of guilt and remorse. But he also draws attention to the horrors of the saturation bombings of German cities such as Hamburg, Berlin and Dresden, which left many Germans feeling that they had been made victims.

He notes that, in Japan, a sense of guilt is absent despite the deaths of 30 million people in the Pacific War. Japan’s regret for the suffering caused by the war is balanced by the belief that because of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the burning of Tokyo, Japan was more a victim than an aggressor. While only neo-Nazis attempt to justify Hitler’s policies, some Japanese still argue that the East Asian War was justified — that the only mistake was that they were defeated.

Nils-Johan Jorgensen, commenting on the nature of German and Japanese culture, notes “the alliance between culture and power, art and politics in Germany and Japan as both countries moved toward nationalism and imperialism in the 1930s.” He points out that “German and Japanese fascism hijacked symbols, myths, rituals and ceremonies and resettled them in the new communication of militarist ideology in a deliberate strategy of aesthetics . . the art of the totalitarian mind is to capture essential symbols totally and to wage a total war.” He adds provocatively: “in that sense German and Japanese fascism is related to al-Qaida and international terrorist ideology.”

An important element in Japanese culture is “Japan’s ability to borrow, adapt and improve ideas . . . [which] is a characteristic feature of Japan’s rebuilding after the war.” In both countries great emphasis was placed on “renewal.” In Germany the terms used most frequently both by Hitler and during the reconstruction of Germany incorporated the word “wieder” (“again”).

In a thought-provoking chapter titled “The Troublesome Faustian Identity,” he draws attention to the continuing German angst and the difficulty for modern Germans to express pride in being German. “The lingering German problem is the absence of national identity and patriotism.”

Most Japanese, having been inculcated in nihonjinron (theory of Japanese uniqueness), do not have such difficulty.

The author notes that both countries are the most significant economic and political powers in Europe and Asia, respectively; both seek to become permanent members of the Security Council; and both have an important relationship with the United States. Their external policies differ if only for geographical reasons.

The European Union is key to Germany’s future, but the concept is of a European Germany, not a German Europe. German opinion was almost unanimously opposed to the American and British intervention in Iraq. This opposition also represented an assertion of German independence after reunification.

For Japan, the American alliance remains paramount and, despite the opposition of Japanese public opinion, the Japanese government supported the American intervention in Iraq. Yet relations with China and South Korea remain crucial.

The book deserves to be read widely but it is not light reading.

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