Friday, 11 September 2015

Book Review - The wages of guilt by Ian Buruma

The wages of guilt : memories of War in Germany and Japan by Ian Buruma

London: Jonathan Cape, 1994                                           ISBN 0224031384

Ian Buruma, born in Holland and spending some of his formative years in Japan, has almost the perfect CV to have written this book. Born into a country that was vicitm of the Nazi terror during World War II, but having an understanding of the language and culture of Germany, he also - through his time in Japan - has a similar understanding of their language and culture.

I feel sure that it his experience of both cultures that led him to write this book - a meditation on the reactions of both nations to their twentieth century history, focused on the War and the years immediately preceding it, and how that history has played out into their modern-day realities. It is a meditation on guilt versus shame, and how different accidents of history can change the way a country looks backwards and forwards.

Buruma tackles the subject by looking at themes that go across both Germany and Japan: remembering, teaching, memorialising. And what he finds is that although there are major differences in the way that Germany and Japan look back on their war years, there are also some similarities.

How to account for the differences? Buruma in not prescriptive, but he does have some theories, which I think make sense. One is the culture of shame versus the culture of guilt. Japan, by virtue of its history and religious outlook, is a country that has a shame culture rather than a guilt culture. The shame culture suggests that (and of course these are generalisations) on the whole Japan wishes to hide the sins of its past, and not bring them up in any forum. This has led to the Japanese having a distorted picture of the war - highlighting the bad that happened to them (atomic bombs, Okinawa), but having no contextual information to place those tragedies within the wider sphere of Japanese aggression, as that story is hidden from view, via selective memorialising, textbooks and a general frowning on openness.

By contrast, Germany's guilt culture, by virtue of its history and religious outlook, predisposes the country to look at past wrongs and try to face them. This may not be done by the perpetrators, and tends to have been begun by the generation born after the War. Buruma charts a history where the perpetrator's generation tried to forget, the children of that generation accused their fathers of all crimes, and the current generation has spent more time trying to find the truth, and is interested in the history of the time in a more holistic manner.

Which is not to say that those people who work to expose the truth in Germany are immune from any backlash. Buruma writes about Anja Rosmus from Passau, who started to look at the Nazi history of her town and to find skeletons in cupboards. She became an outcast for her actions, being shunned by her neighbours, and worse from those who thought the past was best left un-looked at. Buruma speaks to the other side of this debate too, to those who see the likes of Rosmus as people who besmirch the reputation of their town and country by undertaking this research. Of course the truth is the truth, it's what one does with it that matters.

Those that travel down such a path in Japan are liable to suffer worse than their compatriots in Germany. Buruma relates the stories of several Japanese who have tried to expose some of the history of Japan's war years, or to talk openly about the guilt of the Emperor, and while the stories of the Germans involve harassment, those of the Japanese involve gunshots and death threats. The path to truth by those Japanese who have the mind to find these things out (interestingly, many of whom are Christian) is made harder by the way the Americans absolved the Emperor of any blame for the war - his re-creation into a passive observer while the military ran the country has created confusion in the Japanese body politic: whereas in Germany it was clear that Hitler was the source of evil, and Germans can question the way they accommodated or reacted to his rule, Japan found itself after the war with no narrative of loss that they could cling to, and an occupying power that almost wanted them to forget.

Of course this review skates the surface of Buruma's arguments, which are more nuanced than their description here and which are backed up by many examples. However, in some ways what he uncovers fits the standard narrative of both countries since the War - that Germany as a country has accepted its crimes and tried to assimilate and deal with the consequences of that, while individual perpetrators have tried to escape punishment, and that Japan has - for a number of reasons - not yet been able to face its past in a way that assists in helping it move forward.

If you are at all interested in this question, this book is well worth reading.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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