Visions of Paradise

Friday, December 16, 2005

The Wages of Guilt

One of the first tasks we did when we were organizing the Princeton Nanking Conference nearly a decade ago was to establish a network of scholars in that field. Fei Fei and her co-chair Ying spoke to several experts in the Princeton Asian Studies Department–such as Perry Link and Richard Falk–and then contacted other scholars recommended by them who recommended other names, and so on. The scholars receiving the most recommendations generally became our invited participants, so long as they covered a wide spectrum of areas so we would not have repetition in our talks and panel discussions.

One of the most highly-recommended names was Ian Buruma, a Swiss scholar and author living in England. However, we were told he was much too important to come speak at our conference for the meager honoraria we were paying. One thing you must understand about Fei Fei is that she has absolutely no fear of anybody; she respects scholars for their achievement, but she considers them ordinary people no different than anybody else.

So after much discussion and consideration, we decided Buruma should be our keynote speaker. At first we could not even contact him, but only his New York City-based American agent. She was very protective of him, doing all the negotiating herself, giving us neither his address nor his phone number. She demanded an incredible amount of money from us, including business-class travel from London–which itself would have put a serious dent in our budget since then we would have been obligated to pay business-class as well for our three speakers flying from Japan. For awhile it looked as if we would have to seek elsewhere for a keynote speaker.

But somehow Fei Fei found Ian Buruma’s email address and she and I began corresponding with him personally. He gave her his phone number and she had a long, friendly conversation with him. The eventual result was that he was much more amenable to speaking at Princeton than his agent was, and he agreed to come for a much lower honorarium and tourist-class accommodations.

What a fortunate acquisition he was. Buruma was a wonderful speaker, giving an insightful and thought-provoking talk on how dangerous it is to dwell on an historic event as an evil symbol so that one loses sight of the need for healing and preventing future such events. It was exactly the theme we were hoping to base the conference on. It was a logical and thought-provoking talk that approached history as a guide for the future rather than merely as a dwelling on the past.

Buruma himself was just as brilliant as his keynote speech was. I will never forget the night Fei Fei and I and several other committee members sat and chatted with him at a Princeton coffeeshop. His insight was incredible and he sparked so much thought with casual comments that we were virtually in awe of his intellect.

Much of Buruma’s fame in the area of Nanking came from his book The Wages of Guilt, and I determined to read it as soon as I had a chance. The book is a joint examination at how the German and Japanese people and governments have reacted during the past fifty years to their countries’ horrendous crimes during World War II. His book is as brilliant and insightful as the author himself, and it contains such excellent writing and language that it could have been a novel.

To give you some idea of the book, I’d like to quote from a chapter entitled “Auschwitz” in which he discusses the memory of the Holocaust in the German people and the effect it has on the populace, both those who lived through the Nazi years and those born since. While he was visiting Auschwitz himself, Buruma encountered a group of German tourists, mostly people in their fifties and sixties. They would have been teenagers during the war. A Polish woman in her thirties was guiding them. The photographs spoke for themselves. Yet the guide quietly explained in fluent German what people were seeing: giggling soldiers watching elderly rabbis crawling on their knees, Himmler peering through an eyehole to inspect the efficacy of the gas chambers, children driven through the ghetto with rifle butts, bony corpses piled high. The tourists looked stricken as they silently shuffled from one outrage to the next. Suddenly one of them became agitated. She was a woman of about sixty, in a green hat, a beige twin set, and thick brown shoes. She went up to the guide and clutched her arm: “You must understand,” she said, “We knew nothing about this, wir haben nichts gewusst...” The guide looked at the woman and said, quietly and contemptuously: “I’m, sorry, but I cannot believe you. I honestly cannot believe you.”

In the chapter entitled “Hiroshima” you quickly realize there has been an important difference between the German postwar attitude towards World War II and the Japanese attitude. In Germany, while many citizens have failed to totally come to grips emotionally with the enormity of what took place, their overall attitude is one of national and even individual guilt. In Japan, reactions are much more varied, and not necessarily guilt-ridden. The fact that the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan has allowed many Japanese people to honestly believe that they were the victims in World War II, that the entire war was due to Japan merely defending itself against racist whites wishing to destroy them. Buruma examines varying Japanese attitudes towards the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, many of them so extreme as to be ludicrous. He dismisses many arguments with a single, telling phrase, but ends the section by stating, Again, such opinions are extreme. But, judging from what appears in Japanese periodicals and on best-seller lists, not that far from the mainstream.

The section entitled “Nanking” serves as an interesting counterbalance to “Hiroshima”. Buruma spends considerable time in the company of Azuma Shirro a Japanese soldier in Nanking in the winter of 1937 who in 1987 went public with the atrocities he had both seen and participated in. His revelations are shocking indeed, as is the reaction of the Japanese people to his decision to reveal those truths. It is a much more disturbing reaction than that of most German people when confronted with the crimes of their countrymen.

What is interesting about this section, indeed about all three of these sections, is that Buruma never loses his factually-based logic in spite of the most potentially emotionally-charged topics. He is always calm, always probing for the truth beneath layers of emotion and ignorance. Ultimately his calm and thought-provoking comments leave you with much more of a lasting impression than mere emotionalism possibly could. In some instances, comments are hardly necessary, such as when he discusses how many Japanese know nothing of their country’s atrocities throughout Asia during the fifteen year period their Asian war raged, and in fact consider themselves to be both the heroes and the victims of that war. Consider the following quote: The revisionists argue that the war was in fact a tragic and indeed noble struggle for national survival and the liberation of Asia from Western colonialism. “As long as the British and the Americans continued to be oppressors in Asia,” wrote a revisionist historian named Hasegawa Michiko, who was born in 1945, “confrontation with Japan was inevitable. We did not fight for Japan alone. Our aim was to fight a Greater East Asia War.”

Which leads naturally into two sections entitled “Textbook Resistance” and “ Memorials, Museums and Monuments” where the book becomes very unsettling, even frightening. We westerners have always comforted ourselves with the thought that the German government has gone to great efforts to admit German’s war crimes and apologize for them profusely. But Buruma points out quite vividly that fact only represented the West German government. For decades the East German communist government went to great lengths to portray its populace during World War II as socialists who fought against the Nazis, often to great personal suffering. Several generations of East Germans grew up indoctrinated into believing that they had nothing to feel ashamed for as a group because they had never supported the Nazis at any time. But now that the Communists have been removed from power in the East, East German youth are free of their dictatorial control. So where do they turn their allegiance? Surely not to the democracies of the west, because they are still victims of a lifetime of anti-western anti-democratic rhetoric. Instead many youths are turning their allegiance to the past–to the Nazis!

The situation in Japan is as scary. One former Japanese Minister of Education told Buruma that there were no shameful episodes in modern Japanese history, an easily-accepted belief since Japanese textbooks have never taught the atrocities committed by the Japanese army. While West German education requires an average of 60 hours of teaching the history of the Nazi era–all of it with the goal of exposing the sins of the past–Japanese textbooks have always been carefully controlled by the government so as not to contain any information which might be embarrassing to Japan in any way. Buruma spends considerable time discussing Ienaga Saburo, an author of Japanese textbooks beginning in 1952 when the new Japanese constitution forbade the government to censor or control textbooks. Of course, by 1952, the American occupation was over, and the government was free to interpret the American-imposed constitution as it saw fit. Ienaga sued the government numerous times for their violations of the constitution but, except for one brief victory in 1970, he has lost every lawsuit in the past quarter-century.

The Wages of Guilt is a thought-provoking, educational, emotional, frightening book. Anybody who wonders why atrocities continue to happen worldwide, how populaces can permit their governments to wholesale slaughter entire groups or even support such atrocities, should read this book. It is an incredible reading experience.


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