Mistaken Memories

The Wages of Guilt, Ian Buruma, Jonathan Cape, $25.00 hbk.

"The same distinction [that Ruth Benedict makes in her work The Chrysanthemum and the Sword] between guilt and shame [cultures] underlies Ian Buruma's The Wages of Guilt. Buruma... examines the difference between Japan and Germany's view of the Second World War. The implicit argument is that Germany has come to terms with the war but Japan has not. The idea is that Japan cannot apologize because, as a shame society, it has no sense of guilt."

This is the evaluation of Buruma's book given by Daniel Nassim, which appeared in the July/August 1995 edition of Living Marxism. Nassim goes on to state that Buruma is simply the newest in a long progression of Western scholars and journalists who, due to their ignorant views of Japanese culture and society, criticize the Japanese government and people for not apologizing for World War Two. Although it may be true that many Western scholars and journalists do hold mistaken, overly simplified views of Japan and its differences with the West, this is not true of Ian Buruma. In The Wages of Guilt, Buruma attempts to compare many different aspects of the memories and views of World War Two in both Japan and Germany. Rather than dealing with the entire war, he attempts to focus on just a few topics. As he says, "[In] the case of Japan, I have emphasized the war in China and the bombing of Hiroshima, for these episodes, more than others, have lodged themselves, often in highly symbolic ways, in Japanese public life."

According to Buruma, three extreme views of World War Two exist in Japan, two of which have been at odds since soon after the war ended. One is held by the constitution-backed pacifists, who view the war as another manifestation of the concept "all wars are evil," and for evidence point to the bombing of Hiroshima. The second, a more recent development, is an off shoot of the peace movement. They hold that Japan was utterly wrong for causing the war, and needs to apologize for its wrong doings. The third, which has been at conflict with the peace movement for decades, is the viewpoint of the nationalists: Japan was forced into the war, and/or that the war was fought for a good cause. It is Buruma's belief that none of these groups completely grasps the historical truth, and that they all manage to avoid really dealing with what the war really involved for Japan.

Buruma refers to the pro-peace movement in Japan as the "Hiroshima cult." By building monuments and memorials in Hiroshima's Peace Park, they have created a "Mecca of world peace," which will "let all the souls [of A-bomb victims] here rest in peace." The message of peace the cult claims to hold is universal: Hiroshima should prove as an example of the horrors of war. With its undeniable and instantaneous horrors, Hiroshima provides an easy rallying point. However, because they seldom bring up other examples from World War Two, the message ends up being easily misinterpreted: Hiroshima proves the horrors the Japanese experienced due to America's military. Buruma adds that Korean victims of the Hiroshima atomic bombing, some of whom were slave laborers, are remembered in a monument, which stands across the street from Peace Park. The monument has not been allowed inside the park, apparently because it doesn't fit the message of the park. He also tells of petitions in 1987 to get an "Aggressors' Corner" added to the Peace Memorial, which would contrast the horrors of Hiroshima with the horrors Japan afflicted on its neighboring Asian countries during the war. The petition failed, however, possibly due in part to the nationalist trucks which began patrolling Peace Park, but more likely due to the fact "that was not what this museum was for." The pure message of Hiroshima's as a victim and the need for world peace would be tainted by facts - for example, the fact that Hiroshima was a thriving military center before the bomb. Buruma's thoughts on the anti-war movement can be summed up by the quote he provides from a Japanese artist who was a POW in Siberia. In Siberia, the man passed by a red, bloody corpse of a Japanese soldier who had been lynched for brutal behavior by a Chinese mob. Attempting to submit a painting of the episode to a Hiroshima art exhibit, he was disgruntled when it was not accepted for display.

"The black corpses [of Hiroshima bomb victims] made the Japanese feel that they were the main victims of war. In unison they shouted; 'No more Hiroshimas!' It almost seemed as though there had been no war apart from the dropping of the A-bomb. A deeper insight into the real nature of war, and the only true basis for he antiwar movement, must come, not from the black corpses, but from the red one."

By constantly focusing on Japan as a victim, the pacifists are forgetting there were causes for America's actions.

A central core of leftist teachers supports the group of Japanese that is attempting to depict Japan as an aggressor rather than as a victim. In his section on Nanking, Buruma tells of a booklet he received in Japan. Titled "Nanking Atrocities," it was published by a group of Japanese high school teachers attempting to bring light to the events in China during the war. The group had also clipped together bits of newsreels from the massacre to make a documentary video, which they used as supplementary material to the insufficient information provided by the Ministry of Education-sponsored textbooks. Although he evidently agrees with their attempts to make widely known the atrocities of Japan during the war, Buruma has several problems with the purpose for which the video was shown to the children.

Typical to the responses from the teen- and pre-teenagers who saw the gruesome video in class was that of a thirteen-year-old named Ritsuko:

"I always associated the war with Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But the nuclear bombings happened after 1940. Before that, Japan did things which were even worse. Watching the video, it seemed almost unreal. Before this, I could only think of Japan as the loser in the war, but we Japanese must know what happened before 1940. What impressed me more than anything else, seeing this video, was the scene of Japanese soldiers laughing as they watched Chinese people being killed. How could they have done that? I cannot understand the feelings of the Japanese at that time. . ."

Buruma responds to this in the same way responds to the German view of Auschwitz. Most Germans express regret, even shame for what Germans did in World War II. "Can one internalize Auschwitz from the point of view of the aggressors without falling prey to kitsch emotions of false guilt. . ?" The Japanese left, as well, attempt to portray Japan in the role of inexcusable aggressor, as Buruma's words show:

"The Japanese were 'aggressors,' they 'invaded' China, their behavior was 'criminal and cruel.' The Chinese were all either 'brave resistors' or 'innocent victims.' This, then, is what the students are asked to do: to replace their sense of Japanese as a victim with the aggressor's point of view."

At first this might not seem like such a bad thing. It's about time that the Japanese face up to what happened in the war. However, comments like those of the schoolgirl Ritsuko compartmentalize the reason the perpetrators were morally able to commit the crimes as being a flaw of "that time." This doesn't serve as an answer for why the war happened at all, because the only real reason Japanese soldiers would laugh at the sight of Chinese being killed is insanity. Was the Pacific War an insane act of an insane people? Perhaps in pushing these views onto middle school students, the teachers make their point, but, "the point of the film is not primarily historical... this is a political view," as Buruma states.

Opposite of the pacifists and apologists sit the nationalists. Buruma lists several of their aspirations: the emperor should be returned to his status as the religious ruler; Japan must become a legitimate military power again; America and Western Colonialism must be recognized as the sole cause of the Great East Asian War (their name for the Pacific War). Nationalists hold that the Pacific War was "not a war of invasion, but a war of survival," which Japan was forced into, by the threat of a Russian invasion of Manchuria, a desperate need for raw materials which were being denied her by the United States, and other factors. They also find serious flaws in the Western presentation of the events in the war. One of the mainstay nationalist arguments is that the 'Nanking Massacre,' as far as an act of mass killing and rampant violence, never occurred. Sure, soldiers were killed, and maybe some civilians got caught in the crossfire, but there was no wanton destruction and bloodshed. Buruma tosses the whole lot of nationalist intellectuals aside with his comment; "The arguments against the Nanking Massacre are not very sophisticated." One of the examples he brings up is that of the book A Japan That Can Say "No", and comments by one of its authors, Ishihara Shintaro:

"People say that the Japanese made a holocaust there, but that is not true. It is a story made up by the Chinese. It has tarnished the image of Japan, but it is a lie... if we rely on the information of aliens and alien countries, who use history for the sake of propaganda, then we are in danger of losing the sense of our own history."

There is something to what Ishihara says, but unfortunately he ends up in the same bed with the people he's arguing with: his views of history is heavily loaded with his political agenda. He has mistaken the Chinese government's manipulation and timely use of Nanking Massacre propaganda for their creation of it. For decades the Chinese government said nothing about this incident, and then suddenly began forcing the issue in an attempt to sway Japanese-Chinese trade talks in the early 80's. America, as well, puts a bend on the facts, or presents them in such a way that will make its own case more appealing. However, the nationalists, rather than simply manipulating the facts, end up creating their own history, denying obvious facts and fabricating obvious lies.

In Buruma's words, the nationalists are "both irrational and unhistorical." At least the 'unhistorical' part fits in his description of the pacifists and apologists as well. Rather than presenting an historical account, they present a political agenda in the framework of their interpretation of history. The fact that the majority of discussion on the war in Japan is conducted by "journalists, amateur historians, political columnists, civil right activists, and so forth," and not by scholars and professional historians, makes "irrational and unhistorical" accounts unavoidable. Buruma attributes this to the pre-war emphasis on classic history, which was used to stimulate nationalism and focus on the emperor's divinity. This lean towards classic history is still carried by senior historians, who view modern affairs as too fluid, too political, and too controversial to be dealt with as history.

The Wages of Guilt, as an attempt to account for Japanese and German views of their responsibility (or lack there of) for the events in World War Two, is an excellent book. However, in several instances Buruma leaves unanswered questions. The most obvious and most controversial was pointed out in the Living Marxism article. In order to lead into a discussion of the extremist view that the atomic bomb was a "divine punishment" for Japanese militarism and war atrocities, Buruma quickly describes several views on why the bombs were dropped. He lists the anti-Communist theory - the bombs were dropped to get Japan to surrender before the USSR seriously entered the war - and the racism theory - the bombs were an incarnation of white racism. Both theories not only have followings among Japanese journalists and amateur historians, but among Western scholars as well. However, Buruma brushes the racism theory aside quickly, not even allowing that it could have been a factor in the decision, or at least a way for the American government able to forgive themselves. A more general flaw with his book is how flighty it is. A quote on the back cover says, "Buruma probes the psychological abyss... not by abstract intellectualizing, but by being a travel writer. He goes to the places where memories are most painful, and describes what he sees and hears." However, it is just this 'travel writer' -like aspect of his writing that causes problems. By presenting so many impressions of so many places and people and things, it becomes difficult to stitch them into a coherent commentary on what the book was intended to be - Germany and Japan. In addition, although he does provide some stimulating criticisms of commonly accepted viewpoints, and of both the right, the left, liberals, and conservatives, sometimes his criticisms get cumbersome. At one point he criticizes Japanese for their solemn, semi-reverence at war museums, and at another point he criticizes Japanese for not taking the memorials in Saipan and at suicide cliff in Okinawa seriously enough. It becomes unclear what he feels the proper reaction should be when visiting a museum or memorial.

Among the many topics Buruma deals with in The Wages of Guilt, in his sections on Japan he employs the memories of Nanking and Hiroshima as a centerpiece. Although flaws do exist, such as his treatment of the reasons for the use of the atom bomb, and his perhaps-overcritical evaluations of the things around him, Buruma presents a well-rounded view of the ways in which Japanese look back on their wartime past. With his work, he has opened the door still wider for a clear understanding of Japan by Western readers.