The Wages of Guilt: Memories of War in Germany and Japan

In This Review

The Wages of Guilt: Memories of War in Germany and Japan

By Ian Buruma
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1994
330 pp. $25.00
Purchase

This absorbing and important book analyzes the ways that Germany and Japan have dealt with the question of guilt for their misdeeds in World War II. The bottom line is that the Germans have done a much better job at remembering and atoning, both among themselves and with their neighbors. Through interviews and analyses of film, fiction, poetry, and history, the author presents a rich account of changing German attitudes toward the war, from the philosemitism of the immediate postwar generation, to the aggressive denial of guilt by the post-1968 Left, to what the author believes is a better- balanced attitude among young Germans today. In Japan, by contrast, the most powerful memory of the war is Hiroshima, where the Japanese were more victims than victimizers, and respectable politicians and academics can still debate whether the Rape of Nanking was a genuine atrocity. While the absence of guilt in Japan may be overstated, the contrast with Germany is still striking.

With the United States moving toward isolationism, security in many of the world's hot spots will increasingly depend on new regional mechanisms, underwritten in part by the regions' most powerful players, Germany and Japan. But neither country can do this, much less assume a leadership role, until their neighbors are reassured that they can wield power responsibly. And this, in turn, depends on how well they have come to terms with their pasts, as manifested in mundane issues like treatment of the war in high school history textbooks. Buruma correctly suggests that the Germans have moved much further down this road. Japan may never fully face its past, he notes insightfully, until it is treated like an "adult" country, which would entail abandoning its dependent and unnatural security relationship with the United States.