As a Jew who escaped Nazi Germany as a child in 1935, I have a lifelong interest in the ways nations deal with their pasts. I am closely following developments in Japan, in particular the moves to revise Japanese textbooks in a nationalistic direction, the debate about the implications of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, and, above all, steps to turn Japan’s military from a strictly defensive one into one with “normal” capabilities. Abe is hardly the first or only public leader to move in this direction. As Jacob Heilbrunn, the editor of the National Interest, points out, “Nationalists in Japan have never really conceded that Tokyo did anything wrong before or during the war. . . . You will be hard-pressed to find much, if any, mention of Japan’s wartime alliance with Nazi Germany. . . . Japan emerges as a power that was simply trying to defend its own interests. . . . Nationalists also bridle at the moral guilt that outsiders have tried to affix to Japan, whether it is the 1937 invasion of Nanking, which they argue has been falsely turned into a genocidal act, or the use of so-called ‘comfort women’ in Korea.”
I hence suggested at a recent press conference that Japan should send 200 public intellectuals and political leaders to Germany to learn how a nation can come to terms with the darkest parts of its history. Germany gradually came to fully acknowledge the evils of the Nazi regime, made amends when possible (e.g., by paying “reparations” to surviving victims), and made extensive mea culpas and apologies. Above all, it has instituted extensive, elaborate, and effective educational programs in its schools—and military—to ensure that Germany will never, ever again engage in the kind of horrific, barbarous conduct that took place during World War II. Today’s Germans—while also seeking a place for their nation as a “normal” member of the international community—have made it part of their DNA to reject xenophobia and racism. None of this happened in Japan. All of these steps should. Instead, it seems to be moving in the opposite direction.
There are basically two schools of thought as to where the international community ought to go from here. One holds that we should not make too much of the revisionists’ gestures, which are said to be merely minor political maneuvers of a far from formidable public leader. Moreover, according to this line of thinking, Japan’s military buildup and reinterpretation of its constitution are steps the nation is entitled to take now that two generations have passed since WWII.
And according to this school of thought, although the United States should continue to call on Abe and his associates to take into account the sensibilities of other nations, it is important to focus on the fact that Japan is destined to play a major role in “counter balancing” China. Moreover, Japan’s military buildup can be viewed as a welcome form of burden sharing in a period during which the Pentagon is under considerable budgetary pressures. While it is rarely stated publicly, U.S. State Department officials privately admit that the United States may have to put up with “unfortunate” comments by Abe because Japan’s contributions to core U.S. interests in the region are expected to grow substantively.
The other school of thought holds that Japan will shed even more of its pacifistic feathers and become more nationalistic and antagonistic towards China. In response, China, which is still smarting from the way it feels its people were abused and humiliated by Japan, will react with a wave of nationalism and mobilization of its own. American allies, especially South Korea and Singapore, are troubled by the Japanese developments, straining U.S. alliances in the region. Above all, there is the danger that Japan will involve the United States in a military conflict started by confrontations over a matter of limited importance such as whether Japan or China will own the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. (The New York Times reports that both sides are “scrambling their fighters in the East China Sea every day.”)
It is impossible to foretell how far the current nationalist wave, still rather limited, will carry Japan. One should note, though, that there are signs that the Western precepts of human rights and democracy were never deeply absorbed by Japan. This is evident in the poor ways it treats minorities and immigrants; its troubling record with respect to the rights of women, the disabled, and animals; and its low levels of governmental transparency and candor, as was recently demonstrated in the government’s treatment of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. None of these bode well for the future of Japan’s foreign policy.
The United States and its allies in the region might find it less tempting to make allowances for Japan’s revisionist moves and be more willing to use whatever leverage they command to help Japan follow in Germany’s footsteps in dealing with the current foreign policy implications of its past if they realized that China is not seeking first to dominate the region and then to replace the United States as the global power. There is no reason to believe that China seeks to impose its regime on other nations, invade Japan, or occupy other nations on its border. China’s military buildup is starting from a very low base. Its swelling domestic problems, including a slowing economy, major environmental challenges, an aging population, and rising social tensions, are likely to absorb most of whatever economic resources it can marshal.
True, if China will be faced with increasing military buildups by its number one nemesis, Japan, and by other nations on its border (spurred by the U.S. as is occurring in Vietnam and the Philippines) and more of a U.S. military pivot to Southeast Asia that actually rather minimal effort seen so far – China’s own hawkish factions may increase their sway. However, for now it seems all involved, not least the Japanese people, would be better off if Japan were to follow Germany’s example and come to terms with its past rather than continue to deny the atrocities Japan committed during WWII and stop seeking to re-glorify the darkest parts of its history.
Amitai Etzioni is a university professor and professor of international relations at The George Washington University. He served as a senior adviser to the Carter White House and taught at Columbia University, Harvard University, and the University of California at Berkeley. His latest book is Hot Spots: American Foreign Policy in a Post-Human-Rights World.