It seems like there is no time like the present for Japanese to reflect on the wartime past. Japan’s shared history with Asia has long been a running sore, dividing Japanese about what happened and why, a discourse that clouds the issue of war responsibility in ways that antagonize East Asian neighbors who suffered most from Japanese aggression and subjugation.

WAR, GUILT, AND WORLD POLITICS AFTER WORLD WAR II, by Thomas U. Berger. Cambridge University Press, 2012, 259 pp., $29.99 (paperback)

So why are Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and other LDP lawmakers, along with Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto, reigniting Japan’s history problem at a time when regional tensions are running so high?

Thomas Berger has written a thoughtful and provocative analysis of how Germany, Austria and Japan have struggled to come to terms with the dark corners of their respective histories and how the discourse over war guilt and gestures of atonement have evolved in the post-1945 era. In each country the narrative of victimization proved far more appealing than assuming the burdens of victimizer. They were all “for long stretches of time strikingly impenitent about the terrible atrocities they had committed.”

Regarding the capacity to reinvent history, Berger slyly writes, “Austria’s greatest accomplishment in the twentieth century was to convince the world that Beethoven was Austrian and Hitler was German.” It was not until the 1990s that Austria abandoned the convenient myth of victimhood and assumed its share of responsibility for the worst crimes of the Third Reich. The growing international discourse about human rights and the desire to join the European Union created powerful pressures to adopt a more penitent stand on wartime history, but it was a very long battle against the comforts of collective amnesia.

While Germany is regarded as the model penitent, Berger examines the difficulties that politicians there overcame, the international developments that pushed this agenda and the fruitful reconciliation it made possible.

As in Japan, virtually every German city lay in ruins. Over 6.5 million Germans were killed in the war and there were 3 million Japanese war dead, explaining why the catastrophe endured overshadowed that inflicted. In both countries the extent of the horrors committed by their troops only became apparent after defeat and citizens did not feel as if they were responsible or had control over the actions of their governments. Postwar deprivation in both nations meant that there were more urgent matters than war guilt and even if there was anger against the governments that led them into disaster, there was also resentment about Allied atrocities that were left unaddressed by war crimes tribunals. These proceedings were aimed at convincing the general population of their nation’s guilt by prosecuting war criminals, but failed to do so because they were discredited as exercises in victor’s justice. They were seen to be validating pre-ordained verdicts, securing convictions based on laws that did not exist when the crimes were committed. Subsequent purges were beset with inconsistencies, reinforcing German and Japanese skepticism about the pursuit of accountability.

In trying to rebuild war-devastated nations, the Allies also had to tap the expertise of tainted elites, further fueling public cynicism. Berger points out that in the case of Japan, the decision to not prosecute Emperor Hirohito in exchange for his support of Allied reforms and the new Constitution, raised further questions since the war was waged in his name and with his approval.

Berger refers to Japan as the model impenitent. To the extent that Japan has apologized or adopted a more contrite official reckoning, such remorse is, “often undermined by the steady revisionist drumbeat emanating from the right.” Reconciliation remains elusive because, “Japan’s apologies have been limited in scope, challenged domestically, and singularly unsuccessful in improving Japan’s relations with its Asian neighbors.”

So why has Japan been relatively unremorseful about its misdeeds? Berger explains that rightists have a point, since Germany killed more, singled out entire groups of people for extermination and that documentary evidence on Japan’s atrocities is much poorer. In addition, Japan can somewhat plausibly argue that it was trying to free Asia from the yoke of Western imperialism, whereas Germany has no such ennobling fig-leaf. Attribution of responsibility in Japan is also murkier and diffuse, what Masao Maruyama termed the “structure of irresponsibility,” because there was no Hitler or Nazi Party. As a result, Japan has demonstrated, “a far more attenuated sense of guilt.” And the farce of justice served up by the Tokyo Trial did little to encourage a sense of moral culpability.

Moreover, many of the people who led Japan into the war came to “permeate the power structure” after the war; they had a vested interest in squelching a forthright reckoning. It has been more convenient to blame a clique of militarists for a misguided war, and from 1951 the Ministry of Education repeatedly intervened to whitewash the past depicted in textbooks.

Due to the Cold War, the U.S. sought Japan’s support and thus downplayed the history issue. The U.S. security presence and access to the vast U.S. market also meant that Japan did not have the same incentives and threats that motivated Germany to repent. In 1965 Japan struck a deal with South Korea, paying vast sums to bury the history problem and until the 1980s China took a “remarkably lenient stance on the issue of Japanese guilt.”

But the pluralization of public discourse in both countries since the 1980s, their growing economic power, and international trends on human rights norms transformed the terms of engagement over the past; Japan’s minimal contrition was no longer tenable. For the right, the quandary is how to pursue the national interest in the region by expressing sincere contrition and embracing grand gestures of atonement without sacrificing their desire to bolster pride in nation and patriotism.

Thus identity politics plays havoc with history and reconciliation. In this context, we can understand the purposeful questioning of apologies about aggression and the comfort women and why conservatives still seek a dubious dignity in denial and obfuscation, unconvincing and self-defeating as such efforts may be.

Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies at Temple University, Japan Campus.

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