In two previous columns I quoted from one of the writers whom I most greatly admired, referring to him as the “late Shigeto Tsuru.” It has been drawn to my attention that I was misinformed, as Mr. Tsuru, I am embarassed but really delighted to report, is alive and well. I offer my most sincere apologies to him, to his family, to his friends and to all others who may have been distressed by this unfortunate mistake. — Jean-Pierre Lehmann

LAUSANNE, Switzerland — I do not know writer Ian Buruma personally, although I had the opportunity to watch and listen to him recently at a Budapest meeting on the theme of “Reshaping Globalization,” which was convened by financier and philanthropist George Soros.

I consider Buruma to be one of the most brilliant and eclectic contemporary writers, truly a “Renaissance man.” I do not know how many languages he commands, though from references in his publications I presume that, along with his native Dutch, they include all the main European languages as well as Chinese and Japanese. He wanders off the intellectual beaten track, and on every issue he writes about produces comments that are original, incisive and challenging.

The key book on Japanese attitudes to World War II is “The Wages of Guilt — Memories of War in Germany and Japan,” which Buruma published in 1994. The comparison between the two aggressors is one that I have frequently made, including in the June 17 edition of this series titled, “How to avert the risk of war with China.”

Buruma, in summarizing the difference between the two countries, wrote: “The Japanese, compared with the West Germans, have paid less attention to the suffering they inflicted on others, and shown a greater inclination to shift the blame. And liberal democracy has not been the success in Japan that it was in the German Federal Republic.”

Although, as Buruma says, a number of Japanese liberals, including Shigeto Tsuru — referred to in the previous two columns — envisioned a liberal, pacifist, neutral and globally active Japan, they ultimately, “far from achieving a pacifist utopia of popular solidarity, ended up with a country driven by materialism, conservatism and selective historical amnesia.”

Japan is invariably compared with Germany in its attitudes to its past, partly because these were the two major axis powers and also because of the influence Germany exerted over Japan in the decades that preceded the war, which has left a strong legacy.

Buruma states that “much of what attracted Japanese to Germany before the war — Prussian authoritarianism, romantic nationalism, pseudo-scientific racialism — has lingered in Japan while becoming distinctly unfashionable in Germany.”

While the Germans recoiled at the horrors they had perpetrated, there seems to be in Japan a misplaced machismo making it impossible to genuinely apologize. “No Japanese politician has ever gone down on his knees,” writes Buruma, “as (then-Chancellor) Willy Brandt did in the former Warsaw ghetto to apologize for historical crimes.”

Japan’s selective amnesia and sense of victimization is, however, not unique. In many ways, Japan could better be compared with Austria than with Germany. Germany atoned. Austria chose the convenient myth that it was the first victim of Nazism and that there was nothing really Austrian about Adolf Hitler apart from his passport. This national lie is what allowed the country, in good conscience, to elect — and re-elect — the liar and ex-Nazi Kurt Waldheim as chancellor.

When I studied briefly in Vienna as a very young man, I was exposed to and profoundly shocked by this mood of quite scurrilous hypocrisy. Though I have occasionally returned to Austria, I continue to feel extremely uncomfortable there and tend to avoid the country. If it had been left to the Austrians, the new Europe based on trust, peace and prosperity would never have been built. Fortunately, Austria is a small and insignificant country that spends much time wallowing in miserable memory of the great empire it once was.

In other words, a big difference between Japan and Austria is that Austria is irrelevant, whereas Japan is not. And Austria lives in a very different kind of neighborhood.

In yet another literary tour de force, Buruma’s publication last year, “Bad Elements — Chinese Rebels from Los Angeles to Beijing,” shows how historical amnesia is pretty much of a pattern throughout the Chinese world as well.

My Sinological friends have always told me they think China has a lot of cheek demanding that the Japanese face and apologize for their past, since that is something the Beijing government is completely incapable of in respect to its own past. One of the more fascinating parts of “Bad Elements” focuses on the amnesia the Kuomintang regime in Taipei imposed on the massacre it perpetrated on native Taiwanese on Feb. 28 1947 — in which possibly more people died than on June 4, 1989, in Tiananmen.

And it is only in August 2002 — the 30th anniversary of then Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka’s visit to Beijing, which set the stage for the restoration of relations between Japan and China, and a month before the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II — that a Japanese court finally admitted the atrocities committed in China by Unit 731, including infecting people with the bubonic plague, carrying out vivisections and conducting bacteriologic warfare.

This ruling was handed down in the face of protestations from the government that there was insufficient evidence. About a dozen or so years ago, in spite of overwhelming evidence, Tokyo continued to deny that the Japanese government or Army at the time had anything to do with the “alleged” Korean sex slaves. There was a magnificent moment on a BBC interview of the official Japanese Foreign Ministry spokesman when, after he had insisted on the government’s innocence, the cameras just stayed silently on him with the interviewer looking on in unveiled contempt.

As we know from the ruling, however, though the Tokyo District Court admits the evidence, it also absolves, on legalistic grounds, the government from responsibility and any need to compensate the victims, ruling that foreign individuals could not seek compensation from the Japanese government because the reparations issue had been settled by international treaties.

It is very difficult not to feel a very profound sense of indignation. Even leaving morality aside, however, what is terrifying about this historical amnesia, absence of guilt and remorse are the broader geopolitical implications.

The fact that Japan may not be the only amnesiac in the region, or indeed in the world, is not a reason to belittle the profound significance of this case. Facing the past is a prerequisite for building the future. Asia has a very turbulent recent past. With Japan refusing to assume the courage, honesty and leadership required to face the past honestly and make amends, it can, alarmingly, be almost guaranteed that the region will have a very turbulent future.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.