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The Wages of Guilt: Memories of War in Germany and Japan By Ian Buruma
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 330 pages, $25

Factories of Death: Japanese Biological Warfare 1932-45 and the American Cover-Up By Sheldon Harris
Routledge, 295 Pages, $25

Fifty years have elapsed since the close of the Second World War, but the image of Germany and Japan as outlaw nations-incorrigibly aggressive and brutal-remains compelling. In the aftermath of the Nuremberg trials for crimes against humanity, Auschwitz emerged as a symbol of German identity-acknowledged not only by the Allies but eventually by the Germans themselves. The Tokyo war crimes trials, however, crudely managed by the Americans and roundly criticized by the Japanese as “victors’ justice,” did not produce an equally disturbing symbol of national identity for the Japanese. But in recent years fresh evidence of both wartime atrocities and revisionist efforts to whitewash the historical record have solidified public support for Japan’s “peace constitution.” It seems that the Japanese, like the Germans, have a sense that they cannot trust themselves.

The notion that some nations are inherently barbarous is rejected in The Wages of Guilt: Memories of War in Germany and Japan , Ian Buruma’s engrossing political travelogue. Political structures, rather than racial or cultural values, determine a nation’s destiny in Buruma’s view. Citizens who mutter darkly about the fatal flaws of their national character would be better advised to strengthen their democratic values and institutions. Observing the recent rise of neo-Nazi violence in Germany, the author contends:

People are dangerous everywhere when leaders acquire unlimited power and followers are given license to bully others weaker than themselves . . . . But such is not the situation in the German Federal Republic, or indeed in Japan, today. Human nature has not changed, but politics have. In both countries, the rascals can be voted out. Those who choose to ignore that, and look instead for national marks of Cain, have learned nothing.

Buruma’s belief in democratic political activity as a vaccination against militaristic ideology follows his thorough deconstruction of German and Japanese memorials, political debates, textbook conflicts, and artistic works devoted to the war. The young Dutch author made his reputation as an ironic observer of changing Japanese society with Behind the Mask , published in 1984. And though his latest travelogue does not match the acidic brilliance of V. S. Naipal’s work, it nonetheless deserves to attract Western audiences interested in the political culture of Asia’s leading economy. Buruma’s only serious deficiency is his apparent ambition to be more than a writer of political travelogues. When he touches on deeper issues involving Germany and Japan’s future moral direction, he offers some surprisingly superficial-and purely secular-solutions.

In The Wages of Guilt , Buruma untangles the web of mythology, politicized history, and guilt that has cloaked national dialogue in Germany and Japan on an array of topics (including participation in the Gulf War). The most revealing segments of this travelogue deal with memories of Auschwitz, Hiroshima, and Nanking. Here the author addresses two different issues: the Germans’ obsession with atonement, and the Japanese problem of “historical amnesia.”

Germany’s parallel war against the Jews-”not really a war at all,” but “mass murder pure and simple, not for reasons of strategy or tactics, but of ideology alone”-continues to overshadow German politics and culture. Fear of moral contamination or, conversely, dishonoring Jewish victims, overshadows every attempt by historians, writers, and artists to come to grips with the Holocaust.

Buruma examines the almost neurotic scrupulosity of tone and style among German writers on the Holocaust. Fearful that kitsch might violate the memory of the Holocaust, writers tend to avoid the subject entirely.

Buruma’s favorite poem evoking that time is Paul Celon’s Death Fugue :

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night we drink you at midday Death is a master from Germany . . .

But Buruma points out that “Holocaust,” a televised miniseries imported from America, did more to raise the nation’s consciousness than any literary or dramatic works produced by the fastidious Germans.

The author shows how the Holocaust has cast a shadow over the entire Nazi era, subverting every attempt to approach that time with objectivity. National history between 1933 and 1945 has been taught as a morality play, for Germans could do nothing else with events that are “within living memory.”

Over the decades, museums were transformed into memorials and political discourse adopted a religious tone, as the 1968 generation struggled to sort through the jumble of memory, history, and guilt. The generation that embraced the left as a refuge from anti-Semitism still cannot make even basic political distinctions. Thus, the U.S. aerial bombing of Baghdad during the Gulf War is described by a German peace activist as “the greatest war crime since Hitler.”

For the author, the younger Germans-concerned but not self-righteous about the Nazi era-offer hope that the nation can confront the past successfully. Young Germans have been among the thousands who demonstrated against recent anti-immigrant violence; the author notes that over “half the population of Munich” participated in one such public protest. Buruma also applauds new history texts that approach the Nazi period “not as a morality tale, but as a period in history, structurally, politically, and culturally connected to what happened before and after.”

Of course, West German scrupulosity regarding the Holocaust has not been replicated in eastern Germany, where Soviet-approved textbooks and museums played Communist heroism against capitalist-inspired aggression. Germans who have spent their lives in the East know little of the war against the Jews and have not participated in a nationwide effort of moral reeducation.

The contrast between Germany’s preoccupation with atonement and Japan’s case of “historical amnesia” is most evident in the embrace of Hiroshima by the Japanese as a symbol of victimhood and martyrdom.

For many Japanese, modern Hiroshima, specifically, the Hiroshima Peace Museum, is a “Mecca of world peace,” a kind of religious center where visitors can contemplate both the evil of war and the atrocities committed against Japanese civilians. A Hiroshima professor describes the dropping of the atomic bomb as “the worst sin committed in the twentieth century,” while typical artistic treatments of the explosion lack, in the author’s eyes, “any sense of a wider world beyond.”

Yet, during the war, Hiroshima had been a bustling military center, not an isolated province. The Second General Headquarters of the Imperial Army was located in the city, which also had served as a military base for both the Sino-Japanese and the Russian-Japanese Wars.

These unsavory facts are acknowledged by the left, which, nevertheless, shares Japanese conservatives’ antipathy for the United States, the dominant partner in Japan’s postwar security arrangements. Leftists distrust Washington for tampering with Article Nine of Japan’s constitution during the Cold War and for making pacifist Japan an “accomplice” in subsequent conflicts.

Even in liberal political circles, the argument is often made that the bomb purified Japan of war guilt, earning it the right “to sit in judgment of others, specifically the United States, whenever they show signs of sinning against the ‘Hiroshima spirit,’“ Buruma notes. This approach provides the moral underpinnings for Japanese Peace Education, still a subject of considerable debate. The author understands why U.S. involvement in Japanese politics has yielded these contradictory impulses, but he rejects a pacifism that “turns national guilt into a virtue, almost a mark of superiority, when compared to the complacency of other nations. It can also be the cause of historical myopia.”

Historical myopia is very much in evidence as the Japanese gaze shifts from Hiroshima to Nanking, site of wartime atrocities perpetrated by the Imperial Army. In Germany, only fringe groups contend that the Holocaust never took place. In Japan, establishment conservatives still cling to the view that reports of widespread massacres of Chinese civilians are wildly exaggerated, or that the killings were an inevitable consequence of wartime conditions.

The younger generation’s knowledge of these contested events is uneven, for textbook debates pitting the conservative Ministry of Education against crusading leftist teachers usually result in deadlock. Further, while in German textbooks political resistance has been elevated to the status of a high moral virtue, in Japan the conformist values that fed the war effort have never been seriously challenged.

Indeed, while the majority of older Japanese accept the fact that atrocities did take place, they lack a moral framework-or at least the proper language-for a deeper public examination of national guilt. It is here that one glimpses part of Japan’s problem. As a great, non-Western, modernized nation, it wants more international respect and influence. Yet it always seems to be playing catch-up, struggling to deal with newly important political and moral issues it previously deemed irrelevant.

Hirohito’s Japan did not match the moral descent of Hitler’s Germany. Yet, during the postwar era, the Germans have gained considerably more political maturity than the Japanese. Buruma believes the problem can be traced, in part, to the “peace constitution” that Washington imposed on Tokyo. In his view, the constitution has prevented the nation from attaining political adulthood. “Without political responsibility-precisely over matters of war and peace-Japan cannot develop a grown-up attitude toward the past,” Buruma contends. “Political change must come first; the mentality will follow.”

Most Japanese voters would reject the author’s dark view of the constitution, believing that the state, unhampered by constitutional limits, might again drive the nation into another senseless war. There may be good reasons for their fears, but this reviewer is more concerned with Buruma’s embrace of politics as the key to a changed Japanese “mentality.”

The experience of democratic political participation is indeed essential, but politics in isolation cannot sustain a democracy. The contemporary American experience illustrates the political breakdown that follows a decline in moral and religious values. Meanwhile, in totalitarian societies religious communities have supplied breathing space for nascent democratic movements. In Eastern Europe, Soviet leaders viewed Christianity as a threat to totalitarian rule. The churches fueled independent democratic resistance precisely because they refused to make politics ultimate.

Building his case for a purely secular politics-without expressly saying so-Buruma pauses to consider the views of Ruth Benedict, whose seminal work, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword , juxtaposed the moral values of Western and Asian religious systems. Benedict argued that the West operated as a guilt culture concerned with moral absolutes and personal responsibility. Japan reflected a Confucian “shame culture,” in which the individual was concerned with public exposure rather than with guilt or atonement. But after going to the trouble of restating Benedict’s thesis, the author continues on his path, making no real attempt to discriminate between faith and ideology or among the political philosophies of Christianity, Shintoism, and Marxism.

Buruma’s difficulty with religion is strange, for while he calls on the Japanese to accept individual responsibility for their democracy, he discounts the power of religious principles that urge precisely that. A telling segment is his treatment of Nagasaki Mayor Motoshima Hitoshi, a Christian politician who ignited a political firestorm when he observed that the “emperor bore responsibility for the war.”

The author concedes that Motoshima’s willingness to speak out may be a direct response to his faith’s moral precepts, but then Buruma decides that the mayor’s faith is not the point. “Justice may well be a Christian concept to him, but his statement was secular, and so was its effect.” The author goes on to applaud the invigorating debate provoked by the mayor’s remarks: “This was not the voice of God, Marx, or sacred ancestors. It was the voice of reason.”

It is difficult to grasp Buruma’s point here. Does he mean that Christians only act as religious believers when they explicitly refer to their faith? And does he mean that political discourse informed by faith must, necessarily, be unreasonable?

Buruma proposes a politics untainted by faith as the solution for societies grappling with profound questions of collective moral responsibility. His religion lesson would be news to Christians in the newly democratic states of Eastern Europe. But in the Japanese context, Buruma is right to regard the political role of organized religion, specifically state Shinto, with suspicion. Visitors to Japanese POW camps at the time of the surrender observed the routine brutality of younger recruits who had been “thoroughly drilled in Kodo and state Shinto” and found sport in beheading POWs and raping local women.

Since the war, efforts have been made to separate the original elements of Shinto from the ideology of religious nationalism imposed by Japanese leaders. But even this trend is not universal. Shinto priests still tend Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine, where military hardware decorates this controversial memorial to the war dead, including the Kamikaze pilots sent on suicide missions. Could a newly revived Shinto or Buddhist faith provide an ethical system suitable for a modern nation that shows no broad commitment to any form of organized religion? For now, these ancient faiths seem ill-prepared to fill the vacuum at the heart of Japanese society. New religions of various kinds are striving to play that role. They may not succeed, but there is no sign that any form of politics can fill religion’s traditional roll as wellspring of moral virtue.

Over the past decade, Japanese political leaders have issued a series of public apologies for wartime aggression and atrocities. But these public statements, though groundbreaking events for the Japanese, have not erased the impression of moral evasion.

Buruma believes lingering national confusion regarding Japan’s responsibility for its war record is a consequence of General MacArthur’s decision to grant immunity to the emperor. Only Hirohito was allowed to emerge from the war purified of moral responsibility. Yet every atrocity had been committed in his name. The deeply ingrained myth of Japanese racial superiority had its roots in the Emperor system, as did Japanese dreams for a Pan-Asian Empire. If Hirohito had been purified, so had every soldier in the Imperial Army.

The Tokyo war crimes trials were handled by foreigners who knew little of Japan’s hierarchical “system of irresponsibilities,” in which the lines of authority and personal responsibility remained ambiguous. And Japanese leaders could not understand international condemnation for actions they shrugged off as the inevitable consequence of military conflict.

Among the worst Japanese crimes against humanity were those committed by medical units engaged in biological warfare research. Knowledge of these atrocities committed far from the battle scene might have shaken the Japanese, but they were never informed. The Allied Tribunal in Tokyo convicted twenty-five major war criminals, men responsible for the Nanking massacre, the destruction of Manila, and the Bataan death march. Absent from the trials were the military administrators and doctors who infected Chinese villages with plague and anthrax and performed vivisection on living human “logs.” The U.S. military, which sought both to study the results of the research and to prevent the Soviet Union from gaining access to the data, suppressed all evidence of Japanese biological warfare research.

The diabolical operations of Japanese biological warfare research in Manchuria encompasses the first half of Factories of Death by Sheldon H. Harris, a former Professor of History at California State University, Northridge. Dr. Harris’ research is extensive, covering the methods, activities, and results of the medical teams engaged in wartime research. Though the author is no stylist, the evidence he sets forth provides a sickening portrait of Japanese wartime morality unhinged from any system of moral absolutes.

According to Harris’ research, U.S. investigators seemed unperturbed by the enormity of the evil exposed before them. They focused solely on its intelligence value. “In all the considerable documentation that has survived,” Harris writes, “not one individual is chronicled as having said that BW human experiments were an abomination, and that their perpetrators should be prosecuted.” Apparently, U.S. scientists engaged in biological warfare research were attracted by the Japanese “forbidden fruit.” Harris posits that American scientists “were prohibited by law and a code of ethics that denied researchers access to involuntary human experimentation . . . . Japanese scientists didn’t operate under similar constraints.”

That furtive era seems distant when compared with our more open defiance of moral norms in fetal experimentation, for example. Still, the elements of the plot are strangely familiar: euphemisms replace the proper labeling of the subject as a human being; ideology sweeps away traditional restraints on the killing of innocents; moral corruption spreads, producing a bland indifference in the face of evil. Late last year, a panel of U.S. scientists sought federal approval for the creation of human life, destined for destruction following laboratory experiments. The President seemed poised to accept the panel’s decision and crushed the proposal only after the Republican landslide.

And yet the public debate provoked by the scientists’ proposal may be a sign of moral health in our democracy. There is in America deep resistance to direct assaults on human life, and this has spawned a movement that is gloriously single-minded in its commitment to “life issues.” This kind of vigorous political participation, underlining a deep sense of personal responsibility, may prevent us from becoming a nation that no longer “trusts itself.”

“It was the German people who willed the end; Hitler who willed the means,” Paul Johnson observed in Modern Times . The Germans and the Japanese are right to reflect on the roots of wartime depravity, but the rest of the West can hardly take its own democratic traditions or moral foundations for granted.

Joan Frawley Desmond is a writer and high school teacher in Tokyo.