“When we speak of guilt about the past, we are not thinking about individuals, or even organizations, but rather a guilt that infects the entire generation that lives through an era — and in a sense the era itself.

“Even after the era is past, it casts a long shadow over the present, infecting later generations with a sense of guilt, responsibility and self-questioning.”

This is how University of Berlin law professor Bernhard Schlink — author of the bestselling 1995 novel “Der Vorleser” (published as “The Reader” in the United States in 1997) — opens his discussion of justice and atonement in his new nonfiction work, “Guilt About the Past.” Published last month by the University of Queensland Press, it comprises six essays based on guest lectures he gave last year at Oxford University.

This week’s Counterpoint takes up Schlink’s argument in the Japanese context. Next week’s column will examine how concepts of responsibility and self-questioning apply to the United States of America.

Few could fault the Germans for a lack of sincerity in coming to terms with the terror their nation inflicted on civilians before and during World War II. Through reparations, education, the relentless pursuit of war criminals and heartfelt apologies, Germans have demonstrated their profound desire to redress the crimes of the Nazi era. So much so, indeed, that as Schlink puts it: “Dealing with the past became a part of our self-perception and self-expression.”

There could hardly be a more stark contrast than that between the postwar policies of remorse and amelioration adopted by Germany and Japan. If anything has become a part of Japan’s self-perception and self-expression, it is the self-deceiving desire to obliterate and be done with the past.

There are still some here who would deny that Japan perpetrated acts of brutal aggression in Asia and the Pacific. However, such denials do not represent mainstream thought in Japan, and most Japanese today are aware of — and do feel guilty about — their nation’s atrocities in Korea, Taiwan, China, Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

But here is where the similarity with Germany ends. The Japanese memory of war guilt is, in contrast, an abstraction. Japanese have generally found it convenient to avoid reviewing their nation’s crimes in concrete terms.

Many Japanese may now admit to aggression and invasion. But where is the willingness to appreciate, specifically, the horrors their nation inflicted on its victims?

Why have the Asian women forced into sex slavery by the Japanese military bureaucracy, and those Asians (and Allied PoWs) used as slave laborers — some in Aso Mining, the family business of the current prime minister — been compelled for so long to fight for justice and retribution in Japan? Why have the Japanese authorities largely turned a deaf ear to those who suffered? The attitude toward their victims has been: “Forget it; we have.”

Schlink argues that even the exemplary efforts of Germans in coming to terms with their guilt do not free them from it.

“It is not for us Germans to raise objections or feel indignation,” he writes about continued compensation claims by victims of the Nazi past. “Instead, we owe respect to the other side’s difficult struggle with a past that we made traumatic for them.”

Here’s the rift, then, between the two approaches.

The Japanese have demonstrated, over more than six decades since the end of World War II, an exceedingly shiftless apathy toward the plight of their victims, whose ongoing daily traumas — and those of their descendants — cannot be assuaged by a weak handshake, a stealthy bow and a kindly smile.

As Schlink puts it: “The omission of lending aid to the victims, not expelling, prosecuting and punishing the perpetrators afterward, but seeing them instead tolerated or even respected — these all contribute [to the injustices]. Solidarity with the perpetrator leads to entanglement in his or her crime . . . “

This is what has happened in Japan. By reinstating or maintaining the wartime elites and their families into the top echelons of power, Japanese people have become entangled in the crimes of the past: in some cases an innocent enough complicity, but complicity it is nonetheless. Their inability to recognize this complicity is blocking what Schlink terms the process of “detraumatization.”

The Japanese who had a hand in the crimes of the past believed that the years would expunge their guilt and that of their parents. They have relied on the apathy of their nation, and they have been rewarded by it. But, as Schlink points out, “apathy is regarded as dangerous because it is the opposite of hope, belief and love.”

He goes on:

“Even after generations, it is a common notion that forgiveness must be sought, forgiveness especially for the injustices caused by imperial and colonial oppression, exploitation, enslavement and murder.”

In other words, time does not heal all wounds. True repentance is dependent on the victims’ willingness to forgive injustice. Germany came to terms with its neighbors because its goal, as Schlink writes, “was to heal the damaged relationships between the perpetrators and victims through institutionalized, moderated encounters in such a way that they could once more live side by side with each other.”

Where are the institutionalized and moderated encounters between Japan and its neighbors?

Japanese initiatives should have established these decades ago. But for far too long, argument has revolved around whether the wording of Japanese apologies has been sufficiently sincere. The German example has shown that wording is secondary. The genuine and tireless effort of ordinary citizens to empathize with and atone for the traumas their nation caused is what counts. Yet, from Japanese bureaucrats and politicians and courts, what we have seen is legalistic, stone-face subterfuge.

When, in December 1970, Chancellor Willy Brandt knelt before the monument at the Warsaw Ghetto and wept, the world witnessed the kind of gesture that accompanies true remorse. Would Prime Minister Taro Aso do the same at the Nanjing Massacre Memorial? More importantly, would the majority of Japanese people today feel it necessary for him to do it? Ultimately, it comes back to the apathy of the citizenry. Blaming politicians and bureaucrats for a lack of compassion is the Japanese disease of the Heisei Era, as the reign of the current Emperor Akihito is known.

There is no such thing as “too late” when it comes to demonstrating compassion for victims. Over the years, the Japanese have certainly “felt” guilty over their wartime role. But a nation is not judged by how its people feel. Feelings undemonstrated and apologies unsubstantiated are symbols of nothing more than an absence of sincerity and remorse.

The author of “Guilt About the Past” writes about “bringing the past into such a state of order that its remembrance no longer burdens the present.”

More than 60 years on, this process has barely begun in Japan; and until it does, Japanese people will live under a “long shadow” with a guilt of their own making.

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.