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The Pax Axis

1.

It was only the other day, on a visit to Tokyo, that I realized something familiar had disappeared from the Japanese landscape: the blind and maimed veterans of the Japanese Imperial Army, who had fought and lost the war in China, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific. Until about ten years ago they were still to be seen, in their white kimonos and dark glasses, standing on their crude artificial limbs of wood, steel, and leather, playing melancholy old army tunes on their battered accordions, in the halls of railway stations or in front of Shinto shrines or in public parks, hoping to pick up some spare change. Young people, smartly dressed in the latest Western fashions, mostly passed them by without a glance, as though these broken men didn’t exist, as though they were ghosts visible only to themselves. Older people would sometimes slip them a few coins, a little furtively, like paying an embarrassing relative to stay out of sight. Japan had moved on, was getting rich. The ghostlike figures in their white kimonos brought back memories that nobody wanted.

Officially Japan no longer has an army. Article Nine of the Japanese constitution, a document drawn up under the stern eyes of the American occupying forces in 1946, states that “the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation.” And in order to accomplish this aim, “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.”

Instead, Japan has the so-called Self-Defense Forces. The same Americans—though not always literally the same people—who had wanted the Japanese to be permanently disarmed, as an exemplary nation of peace, changed their minds in 1950, on the eve of the Korean War, and decided that Japan should defend itself after all. A National Police Reserve was created. The Japanese left called this unconstitutional. They were overruled. The first US–Japan Security Treaty was signed. Richard Nixon, on a visit to Japan in 1953, said that Article Nine had been a mistake. Japanese conservatives agreed, but were unable to convince the public. The cold war heated up, business began to boom, and the socialists lost more and more ground. The Self-Defense Forces were legalized, though some still regard them as unconstitutional, and the Americans continued to occupy bases all over Japan.

In fact, Japan never regained its full sovereignty. The US took care of security, while the Japanese took care of business, a cozy deal for the Japanese corporations, and the conservative Liberal Democratic party that represented their interests. The LDP and the equally conservative bureaucracy, staffed by many of the same men who had administered Japan during the war, consolidated their grip on power. The left, which had emerged from the war with great dreams of strong trade unions, social reforms, liberal politics, and unarmed peace—dreams which the Americans had done everything at first to encourage—felt betrayed, and retreated into a pacifism that was anti-American, pro-Chinese, pro–North Korean, pro-anything-socialist-and-non-Western.

The old Axis partner, Germany, followed a similar, but not identical course. There, too, the people had been promised peace for all time, or at least that any future war would be fought “without us.” (Even now, according to regular polls, many Germans dream of Germany being a larger version of Switzerland.) And there, too, the cold war and especially the rearming of the Communist eastern part of Germany, changed the American mind. Germany was to have an army again, which was placed at the disposal of NATO, under an American commander. Rearmament was greeted with no more enthusiasm, especially among Social Democrats, than it had been in Japan. A considerable segment of the German left not only blamed America for making West Germany a military nation again, but also for keeping the two Germanies apart by doing so.

Still, the Germans managed to get a more sensible deal than the Japanese. In return for drumming up an army, with considerable difficulty, the Federal Republic regained much of its sovereignty in 1954. Five years earlier the German Basic Law had been drawn up by German jurists continuing in the tradition of the Weimar Republic, whereas the Japanese constitution was—and still is—closely identified with the postwar American occupation. An emergency law was passed, enabling Germany to take control of its own defense, something Japan cannot legally do to this day. There is nothing in the German constitution to stop Germany from participating in the collective defense of NATO countries, though there is dis-agreement about whether German troops can be deployed outside the NATO region. And by raising an army of conscripts, the German armed forces are more part of mainstream life than that furtive, rather isolated Japanese entity called the Self-Defense Forces. About the quality of German soldiers, opinions differ. An Israeli diplomat called them “chocolate soldiers.” But the air force is highly praised. And most Germans are agreed that their army is “very democratic.” Yet in Germany, as in Japan, there is a lingering feeling of bitterness and frustration: bitterness about being dragged so swiftly back into the wicked world, frustration about the continued presence of the 239,900 “Amis,” on whose power the security of Germany still depends. These feelings sometimes boil over into angry demonstrations when the wicked world refuses to conform to the dreams of universal peace.

2.

The architecture of the defense ministries in Bonn and Tokyo is oddly similar. The buildings not only lack the pompous grandeur of similar institutions in nations which still take pride in the feu sacré of their warriors, but they actually look rather shabby, a little jerry-built, almost as though they shouldn’t really be there at all. The ministry in Tokyo isn’t even called a ministry, but an “agency.” Inside the agency I spoke to Mr. Hagi, a defense policy bureaucrat. On the wall of his office was a pinup photo of a young girl in a bikini. I told Mr. Hagi that I had just arrived from Germany, where I had begun research for an article on the attitudes of the former Axis powers to war in general, and to the Gulf War in particular.

Ah,” he said with a gentle smile, “I like the Germans very much, but they can also be a dangerous people, just like us Japanese. We swing from one extreme to another. We are disciplined and hard-working, and when our energies are pointed in the right direction, we are capable of great things. But when we go the wrong way, well….” Here he paused. “And besides, we are racists.”

A week before seeing Mr. Hagi, I was in the Bonn office of Norbert Gansel, the foreign affairs spokesman for the Social Democrats. On his wall was a photograph of Kiel, Mr. Gansel’s native city, in ruins after the Allied bombings in 1945. Mr. Gansel is about fifty. His plum-colored suit, steel-framed Schubert glasses, and general demeanor speak of a man who came of age in the 1960s. He poured us both some Japanese rice wine. “Goes down like oil,” he said. He then swiftly came to the point: “My personal political philosophy, and maybe even my ambition, are based on an element of distrust in the people I represent, people whose parents and grandparents made Hitler and the persecution of Jews possible.”

Distrust. It is a common sentiment in Germany and Japan, especially in leftist circles. Distrust of their own people. Would they be able to restrain themselves if faced again with the heady temptations of military power? As the former SPD chief Oskar Lafontaine put it recently in response to calls for more German participation in the Gulf War: “Don’t these foreigners understand that you can’t offer brandy chocolates to a former alcoholic who has finally managed to stay on the wagon?” Opinion polls in Germany and Japan showed that while the majority in both countries favored allied efforts to oust Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, few people wanted their own troops to help do the job. So money—$9 billion by Japan, $11 billion by Germany—was pledged instead.

The German Social Democrats seem to be having second thoughts about this huge donation now that the fighting is over. Unlike the British, who rather enjoyed their war, which reminded them of their finest hour, Germans were depressed about the war from the beginning. Their mood was so somber that they decided not to celebrate this year’s Karneval. And the fact that West Germans are having to pay more and more to keep a bankrupted East from collapse injected a sense of panic into the general gloom. There are now more unemployed in Berlin than in 1933, when Hitler came to power. Some Social Democrats have suggested that the money meant for the Gulf War would be better spent on relieving German problems.

The Japanese donation, too, was not without complications. It came with the proviso that not one yen was to be spent on military activity itself. To many Japanese this seemed entirely consistent with the postwar deal: the US would do the soldiering and the Japanese content themselves with business. One Japanese commentator, Kase Hideaki, a well-known critic of the deal, likes to provoke foreign visitors by calling the Americans “our white mercenaries.”

Distrust is the reason why the leftwing parties in both former Axis powers see it as their duty to act as watchdogs against any hint of resurgent militarism or fascism. It is why neo-Nazi movements are explicitly unconstitutional in Germany. Distrust, as well as that still-smarting sense of betrayal, is why the anti-American left in Japan clings to the American-made constitution, to block attempts to rewrite it by conservatives, who are, if not pro-American in sentiment, usually pro-American in practice. Distrust set the tone in many German TV programs, broadcast during the Gulf conflict, in which older people remembered how they suffered during the war, and younger people asked how Germans could possibly fight in another war, after what they had done in the last one. A recent poll found that 43 percent of young Germans thought their armed forces were “superfluous,” and 11 percent actually “harmful.” Young doctors in Hesse agonized whether their conscience allowed them to treat soldiers wounded in the Gulf, for wouldn’t this be an indirect way of participating in the war? Pastors discussed what Martin Luther said about killing one’s fellow man. There are 100,000 conscientious objectors in Germany today, doing some kind of alternative service, a duty from which only clergymen are freed.

It is a pleasing thought that the pacifism of postwar Germans and Japanese should be a sign of wisdom, of lessons learned the hard way. This thought, a common one in Germany and Japan, was nicely summed up recently in a reader’s letter to the left-leaning Asahi newspaper in Tokyo: “Now, of all times, we Japanese have the right, as well as the duty, to oppose war and to tell the world about our own experiences, how our innocent civilians were sacrificed by terrible bombings.” Hiroshima and Nagasaki have given the Japanese an urgent sense of mission to bring peace to the world. Which is not to say that pacifism is universal in Japan, or that no one recognizes the limitations of appeasement. During the Gulf War there was a great deal of hand-wringing about Japan’s “shameful” passivity in such right-of-center newspapers as the Yomiuri and the Sankei (which recently ran a full-page ad, paid for by sixty-five Japanese intellectuals, thanking America for destroying Saddam). And parallels between Saddam Hussein’s military ambitions and the adventures of the Japanese Imperial Army on the Chinese continent were drawn, not, as one might have expected, by people of the left, but by conservatives, who do not normally dwell on Japan’s military sins. The critic Saeki Shoichi, for example, wrote in the conservative monthly Bungei Shunju, that “Saddam Hussein’s dictatorial methods, and his ruthless way of storming ahead with complete disregard for international rules, was very much like our country before and during the war.” But on balance, memories of Japanese suffering carried more weight than those of Japanese aggression.

Self-pity is perhaps not quite so conspicuous a feature of German yearnings for peace. On the contrary, self-flagellation is often more in evidence. Even so one sometimes wonders whether people always learned the right lessons from history. In the center of Bonn, on the Münsterplatz, the Green party had established a so-called Mahnwache, a warning post, during the Gulf War. It consisted of a tent and some tables, set up around the bronze statue of Beethoven, who had a peace flag thrust into his snow-crusted hand. On and around the tent were banners with slogans: “There is no just war!” “There is no road to peace—peace is the road!” “Our hopes fall with every bomb!” “No blood for oil!” “German arms and German money are killing people everywhere!” And so on. The message was not that sanctions should have been given more of a chance, but that any Western use of arms was unacceptable. Then there was a collection of photographs tacked onto a large board: pictures of the trenches in Flanders, of Germans invading Poland, Nazi rallies in Nuremberg, Israelis in Lebanon, Americans in Vietnam—especially Americans in Vietnam.

Of course all wars are cruel, and the Greens were quite right to be critical of German firms selling lethal chemicals to a dangerous dictator. (Norbert Gansel had been warning about this for years, but was studiously ignored by the Kohl government.) But there is, nonetheless, something conveniently indiscriminate about this kind of display. If all wars are unjust, no war is more or less just than any other. Stalingrad, Nanking, or Gaza, what’s the difference? A Green in an anorak, who had been braving the snow all day and night to be on his warning post, was on hand to discuss the issues of peace. The Americans, he said, did nothing when Saddam gassed the Kurds, so why go to war now? I asked him whether the fact that nothing was done after the Reichskristallnacht in 1938 meant it was wrong to resist Hitler after 1939. “I wasn’t born then,” was his reply.

Again, pacifism was not universal. Tough editorials in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung chastised the German peaceniks for their lack of realism, and reminded people of what happened after Hitler invaded the Rhineland with impunity. The abject French slogan “Why die for Danzig?” was quoted on several occasions (like the British, the Germans relish a chance to remind the French of their cravenness). Even the ranks of what is still loosely called the left were broken on this issue (in Germany, but not in Japan, for reasons I shall try to explain). Hans Magnus Enzensberger wrote a blistering piece in Der Spiegel, comparing Saddam to Hitler, calling them both “enemies of mankind.” Wolf Biermann, the singer, poet, and songwriter who was expelled from his native East Berlin in the 1970s for being subversive, wrote a long piece in Die Zeit declaring his support of the war against Saddam. This was the same man, who only five years ago wrote lines such as these:

I threw my bit of human life
in front of a US Army truck in Mutlangen.
For I, too, am part of the Peace rabble….

Biermann lost his father in Auschwitz and does not wish to see Israel incinerated. He is scathing of the very peace movement in which he himself played a prominent part:

No blood for oil—that’s the latest anti-American slogan. Dear me! Of course the Americans are also concerned about oil…. And thank God for that, I say…. Yes, I am happy that there are such lousy interests. For otherwise Israel would stand alone.1

This kind of thing touches raw nerves in Germany, though not of course in Japan, hence the greater complexity in the German response to the Gulf War. Even leftists who feel strongly about the fate of Palestinians hesitate before attacking a Jew for feeling concerned about Israel, especially when such concern is related to the fear of poison gas developed in German laboratories and sold by German businessmen. Which is perhaps why Biermann was not handled quite so harshly for breaking ranks as Enzensberger, who was called a “Satanist” and “the Western Ayatollah.” And why even a modish, Greenish journal like Die Tageszeitung, the Berlin equivalent of the Parisian Liberation, was equivocal in its antiwar views. Together with articles by Noam Chomsky attacking American imperialism, there were contributions such as this, by Birgit Imroll, of which I was told at least some Tageszeitung editors approved:

Saddam Hussein isn’t Hitler. Yet there are similarities. He recognizes neither human life, nor international law. He strives to lead the Arab world, wants to gas Jews and is very heavily armed—above all, thanks to German politics and industry.2

So while some Greens, like the ones on the Münsterplatz in Bonn, were comparing My Lai, Beirut, and Stalingrad, other Germans were frantically calling the Israeli embassy to ask how they could save Jewish children. “Ach, well,” said an Israeli diplomat, shrugging his shoulders with a smile, “it’s hard to be a German.”

He pointed out that there had been a curious reversal of roles since the war. Before 1933 the Jews were regarded as soft, peaceful, otherworldly eggheads, Luftmenschen, while the Germans were, as their Führer put it, “hard as Krupp steel, tough as leather, swift and lean as greyhounds.” Israel changed all that. Especially since the 1967 War, the Jews became the warriors and the Germans the gentle poets of peace. There is an element of displaced guilt here, of course, just as there is in the Japanese harping on the horrors of Hiroshima: aggressors and victims have neatly changed places.

But it is actually more complicated than that. I spoke to a man in Bonn who grew up in Germany but is now an Israeli citizen. He was young, slightly bitter, and did not want his name to be quoted. He told me what it was like to be the only Jewish child in a German school in the early Sixties; how he was always singled out for effusive public praise and allowed to do things that others were not. “I was always treated as something special,” he said, wincing at the memory. “You know, before the late Sixties, they all loved Israel: church groups, city mayors, school-teacher associations, they all visited Israel.”

I thought of an office I had visited that same day in Bonn. It belonged to an organization dedicated to political education in German schools. The walls were covered with posters and calenders from Israel. I asked him why. Was it guilt?

Partly that,” he said, “but the older Germans who come to Israel love the way Israelis work and fight.”

I was reminded of some anti-Semitic books I had read in Japan, which expressed an admiration for the way Jews protected their “racial purity.”

But,” the German Israeli went on, “things changed in the Sixties. The generation of ‘68 totally rejected their parents’ values, including the unreflecting philosemitism. Ulrike Meinhoff, of the Baader-Meinhoff gang, is typical; her parents were great lovers of Israel. It’s as though the young believe that being left is a vaccination against being anti-Semitic.”

The spirit of ‘68 is often quoted as an explanation for German pacifism. Young leftists were opposed to the materialism of the Wirtschaftswunder, opposed to the old Nazis who still administered the Federal Republic, opposed to US imperialism, and opposed to Zionist aggression. Unlike their parents, they thought they had learned how to resist, and to show solidarity with the oppressed peoples of the world, especially the third world.

Their counterparts in Japan were equally earnest in the struggle against materialism and American imperialism. And just as the German left picked the Jewish state as a target of their concern, Japanese third worldism has a way of echoing the rhetoric of prewar pan-Asianism. Here, for example, is Nakamura Tetsu, a medical doctor active in the Middle East, writing recently in the Asahi Shimbun a propos of Western intervention in the Gulf:

When speaking of the New World Order, we must understand our brethren in Asia, whose sense of values and culture is not shared by the West. We must rethink our attitude to Asia. Only fifty years ago it was us Japanese, caught between our traditional society and Western-style modernization, who suffered in the shape of a war against America. That war is not concluded yet. It is time to think again about the meaning of the several million [sic] “sacred spirits” sacrificed in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.3

Nakamura believes that “international order” and “international justice” are Western fictions masking imperialist designs. Japan should have nothing to do with it, because a show of support will ensure the hatred of all Arabs.

In his book The Germans Gordon A. Craig describes how Thomas Münzer, Luther’s former disciple, felt that religion should be translated into social action. Munzer was revered in the former GDR as a kind of ur-Liberation Theologist. Craig:

He believed that when the individual, through a process of trial and suffering, had received the Holy Spirit, he was converted into an instrument for the extermination of evil in the world and must join with other converts in an unremitting struggle to complete the course of human history by ushering in the Kingdom of God.4

Craig makes the point that these early Protestant ideas were much in evidence during the student revolts of 1968. Although Protestantism never gained many converts in Japan, a similar spirit animates Japanese yearnings for a glorious millenium. When this merges with a mystical attachment to nature, something that was always present in Japanese and German romantic traditions, you have a potent force of protest against all the bug-bears of ‘68: materialism, modern “progress,” capitalism—in a word, America.

It is only partially a paradox that postwar pacifist millenarianism can sound similar to prewar militarist propaganda. For militarism rarely called itself by its proper name. It, too, especially in Japan, was presented as a mission to pacify the world. In a famous book, written during the Pacific War, the American scholar D. C. Holtom described, not without sympathy, the significance of state Shinto in Japanese propaganda:

The phrase “the whole world under one roof” does not mean bald aggression and military exploitation, as those affected by the materialism and individualism of Europe and America might easily misunderstand it to mean. It means the establishment in the earth of peace and righteousness, aiming to cover the whole world with the illuminating rays of charity, love, virtue, truth, and justice…. This in turn involves the use of military power, but history shows that the military might of Japan is always that of a “divine soldiery that is sent to bring life to all things.”5

Hitler presented his nation with a millenarian mission, too, although one less peaceful in its tone than Japanese state Shintoism. Indeed, both Japanese and German propaganda stressed such military virtues as blind obedience and battlefield valor. National missions, or destinies, or crusades, whatever the stated aims, are substitutes for politics. This tradition was hardly invented by Hitler or Japanese militarists. German foreign policy fell into the hands of the General Staff in the 1860s. Even Bismarck couldn’t control his generals, and Bismarck’s successors could do so even less. It was under Bismarck, when the Reich was founded, that talk about Germany’s destiny got feverish, that the missionary zeal began. This was often couched in the rhetoric of pietism. Gordon Craig believes we should take Bismarck at his word when he said: “I believe I am obeying God when I serve my King,” or “It is precisely my living evangelical and Christian faith that lays upon me the duty, in behalf of the land where I was born and for whose service God created me, to guard that office against all sides.”6

When the Japanese mission to “enrich the nation and strengthen the army” (as the Meiji slogan had it) got going in the last decades of the nineteenth century, Japan modeled itself on Wilhelminian Germany, with its Prussian constitution, its Kaiser-like emperor, its military zeal, and its mystical view of the nation-state. The rhetoric, however, was not Protestant, but neo-Confucian. Politics was replaced by an ideal of national harmony and reverence for the emperor. Liberalism, with its talk of individual rights, was Western, decadent, coldly rational, materialistic, amoral, divisive, in short, wholly unsuited to the Japanese family state. This view of politics, though not of course its militaristic aims, is shared by some millenarian enemies of liberalism in the Green and peace movements today.

After the Second World War, liberalism had a promising start in Japan: trade unionists, socialists, social democrats, left-wing teachers, and liberal intellectuals wanted a complete break from the militarist past. They, too, had their Stunde Null, so to speak, but by the early 1950s, the trade union movement had been emasculated and the left-wing political parties were pushed to the margins of political life. Their last gasp was in 1960, when large demonstrations failed to prevent the conservative government from ramming through a new security treaty with the United States, which locked Japan into the American strategy for fighting communism in Asia. Marxism survived in a rigid, almost ritualistic form in the universities, the National Teachers’ Union, and some political journals. What happened in those circles was the substitution of one kind of national mission with another. The missionary language had become the rhetoric of pacifist opposition. Although Marxism is hardly a popular creed in Japan, and by no means all Japanese are anti-American, the pacifist rhetoric is nonetheless quite pervasive, even among people who will dutifully vote for the ruling conservatives at every election, because they see no alternative. Moralism in politics is usually a sign of impotence. After all, what else can a Japanese do but preach, so long as he feels unrepresented by a corrupt, one-party government at home, and by Washington abroad?

The situation in Germany was both more and less grim than in Japan; more, because the country was divided for so long, less, because liberalism continued to flourish in the Federal Republic. The Social Democrats have had their turn in power, and because of the German system of coalition government, there has to be a mixture of varying political views, with the small Free Democrat party and its middle-class constituency holding the balance of power. The politics of Hans-Dietrich Genscher, the Free Democrat foreign minister, are not the same as Helmut Kohl’s. Conservatives in the Christian Democratic Union, or Defense Ministry officials, criticize Genscher for being a fair-weather politician, promising, as they put it, “peace, cake, and happiness.” He has been criticized for being soft on the Soviets and for dithering too long before offering German support to the multinational forces in the Gulf. He is accused of being a moralist with little understanding of Realpolitik.

These criticisms are perhaps a little unfair. Genscher has tried to reconcile interests which were not always reconcilable: German unification and Ostpolitik with the installation of Pershing missiles on German soil (which he supported); a special relationship with third world countries in the Middle East and solidarity with the Western nations. And if he has stressed the exceptionally peaceful nature of postwar Germany to the point of sounding moralistic about other countries, this is excusable so long as others continue to view Germany with distrust.

Joachim Fest, editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, believes that Germany should do more to keep the peace than talk about it, or pay others to do the dirty work. He has criticized Germany for what he called “its special moralizing role,” for taking for granted all the benefits of an international order, while sitting in moral judgment of the Western countries that have taken steps to protect it. This moralizing attitude, he said, has almost become the raison d’état of the Republik.

Helmut Kohl would seem to agree. His party, the CDU, is in favor of changing the German constitution to enable German armed forces to be integrated in a multinational European alliance and to help resolve conflicts all over the world. Had it not been for the Gulf War, this idea would not have been so urgent. Until recently, German attention was entirely concentrated on the threat from the Soviet Union. But now that the Wall has come down, the cold war is seemingly over and the Soviet Union a spent and disintegrating force, the center of security concerns will shift to other regions. Future conflicts are more likely to occur outside Europe, and the United Nations, or NATO, or some European defense coalition might well be called on to help solve them. Lord Ismay’s famous dictum about NATO’s purpose in Europe being to “Keep the Americans in, the Russians out, and the Germans down” makes little sense any more. A similar point can be made about Japan, the other junior partner that had to be kept down, while the Russians (and Chinese) were kept at bay.

But things are not as simple as Chancellor Kohl might wish. Mr. Genscher has agreed that German troops might take part in future UN or European operations, but the Social Democrats still insist that the German commitment must be confined to UN “blue helmet” peace-keeping missions. Without a two-thirds majority in the Bundestag, there can be no change in the constitution. But without a change it is hard to see how future problems with Germany’s Western partners can be avoided.

In Tokyo, no one, apart from a small and vociferous group of right-wingers, challenges the peace constitution. As far as Japan’s future role is concerned, Prime Minister Kaifu has suggested that Japan might use its $9 million foreign aid budget to spread pacifism. Japan would ban any aid to countries that export arms. A former government official called Sawa Eiji offered the idea that “if America is going to be the world’s policeman, maybe Japan can be the world’s social worker.” The idea of Japan entering the world’s slums ladling out soup to the deserving poor at least takes Japan’s new wealth into account, but it is still a variation on the postwar arrangement.

3.

This January, Norbert Gansel gave a speech to the Bundestag in which he said that the German constitution was “a lesson drawn from the fact that our neighbors were twice the victims of German armies. To know whether we have learned our lesson sufficiently during the last forty years for our newly unified country to fulfill its new duties in the United Nations, we will need some serious self-examination.”

Self-examination is precisely what a growing number of conservatives, ranging from historians such as Michael Stürmer to politicians like Alfred Dregger, and even Helmut Kohl, are growing tired of. It was in 1987 that the late Franz-Josef Strauss, then the minister-president of Bavaria, said it was time for Germany to “emerge from the shadow of the Third Reich.” It was time for Germany “to become a normal nation again.”

One comes across this phrase “normal nation” often among conservative commentators and politicians in Germany, as often as one hears terms like “self-examination” among liberals. A “normal” nation, it is implied, would not continually be examining its past. Indeed, the conservative idea of normality can be seen as a direct challenge to the postwar role of the nation in sackcloth and ashes, the reformed alcoholic being closely guarded by the moral watchdogs of the left.

There is, of course, no such thing as a normal nation, only ideas of what normality should be. On this there can be no complete consensus. But if there is a clear link between such disparate figures as Helmut Kohl, Alfred Dregger, Michael Stürmer, the historian Andreas Hillgruber, or Joachim Fest, it is this: a normal Germany is a nation which can take its rightful place among Western democratic states, defend its national interests, as well as those of the democratic world, with force if need be, without feeling burdened by its unfortunate past. None of these men advocates a return to militarism, but all want to doff the sackcloth and ashes. The past, in their view, has been mastered. Too much self-examination becomes a form of self-destruction.

Because the self-imposed duty of liberals to act as moral guardians is now being challenged from the right, history has become highly politicized. It is why an academic dispute such as the Historikerstreit became so heated. When Andreas Hillgruber claims that Germans should feel empathy with the patriotism of German soldiers who fought the Russians on the eastern front, or that Hitler himself, and not the German people, was to blame for the Holocaust, he might simply be trying to foster a healthy pride in being German and counter morbid introspection, which obstructs his view of normality. But his liberal opponents are right to say that history is distorted to make a political point.

An outsider to these debates may wonder whether both sides are not looking at the German problem from the same rather skewed angle. Should a debate about national defense policy—the old question, that is, whether Germany can be trusted with military power without running amok—really be about attitudes to history and the national identity, whatever that may be? Should it not be more about political checks on the army, than about guilt and self-examination? Perhaps this is a matter of emphasis, since these matters cannot be kept entirely separate. But so far as the checks and balances are concerned, the Federal Republic has little to worry about. It is a fully sovereign nation with a normally functioning democracy, which is more than can be said for Japan.

Japanese conservatives have also challenged the postwar order. Former prime minister Nakasone, for example, often expressed his frustration with what he called the “unfinished business” of the postwar era, by which he meant the unfortunate legacy of the American occupation: the peace constitution, the purely symbolic position of the emperor, the lack of patriotism in modern education, and the guilty attitude to the war, for which the Japanese carry too much blame. Like Stürmer, Hillgruber, and other German conservatives, Nakasone stresses the importance of a healthy national identity, unencumbered by guilt: “What is most required in Japan today is patriotism in the right sense based on idealism.” To show the way, Nakasone, in his official capacity, decided to visit Yasukuni Jinja, where the spirits of such class-A war criminals as Tojo Hideki are enshrined—the first postwar prime minister to do so. (He was immediately accused by leftists of “bringing militarism a step closer again.”) But above all, he is concerned about the question of national sovereignty. Defense and politics, he has argued, must “be based on self-determination of the Japanese race.” (Nakasone usually prefers the word “race” to “people.”)

Ishihara Shintaro, LDP politician, novelist, hawk-about-town, and, like Nakasone, a former drinking companion of the author Mishima Yukio, coined the famous phrase that Japan must say No—No to Big Brother USA. What motivates Nakasone, Ishihara, and various other intellectuals, such as Kase Hideaki, who support their cause, is not nostalgia for militarism, or fascism. Nor are they necessarily anti-Western. But they are all deeply dissatisfied with the postwar deal. A normal Japan, in their view, must be able to take care of itself, without guilt, and without having to defer to Washington every time there is an international crisis.

There are rational arguments to be made for this view. Indeed, I think it is the right one. The problem with the Japanese right is, however, that their views of a normal Japanese identity can be rather alarming. When a perfectly reasonable man like Kase Hideaki writes about emperor worship, he sounds like a religious fundamentalist: “The emperor is someone close to the gods. No, better still, he is a god.” When Nakasone extols the virtues of the monoracial state, he sounds like a blood and soil philosopher. In August 1983, on the anniversary of the A-bomb attack, he gave a speech in Hiroshima, stating that “our same Yamato race has been living on these islands hand in hand for at least two thousand years, unmixed with other ethnic groups.” This was not only patently untrue, but it offended the Korean A-bomb survivors present on that occasion. And when Fujio Masayuki, a former minister of education, says that Japan did nothing to be ashamed of during the Greater East Asian war, one begins to understand why Japanese liberals, leftists, Christians, and others concerned with peace cling to the constitution, for the country’s defense can surely not be entrusted to men who hold such reactionary opinions. That is why even to mention constitutional revision, outside right-wing circles, is virtually taboo. And so defense continues to be entrusted to the Americans, and Japan continues to get richer, which takes us back to the core of the problem.

The rather bizarre rhetoric of the nationalist right, like the pan-Asian pacifism of the left, is but another example of political blockage, of impotence. Because Japan has become a de facto one-party state, run by bureaucrats and, so far as security is concerned, subservient to Washington, political debates about national interests hardly take place. Instead you have pseudo-debates about national identity, the nature of Japaneseness, the role of the emperor, and so on. It is, in effect, all there is to talk about.

Take, for instance, Kamei Shizuka, a youngish former police official and well-known hawk in the ruling Liberal Democratic party. He has often been outspoken in his views on the need for emperor worship, the lack of patriotism in schools, the misplaced guilt about Japan’s war, in short, the national identity issue. I spoke to Kamei in his office, near the Diet building. In the slightly gangsterish tone of voice often adopted by right-wing Japanese MPs, he put forth his view on the Gulf War. He would be perfectly frank with me, he said. Publicly, he agreed that Saddam Hussein did wrong to invade Kuwait, and Japan should help to oust him. Privately, however, I should not get the impression that anyone could pull wool over Japanese eyes. The Japanese could see perfectly well that the war was fought by the US for Jewish interests. Why, only the other day, the Jew Henry Kissinger was on television propagating the war. And besides—and here Kamei looked distinctly peeved—Japan was not even consulted by Washington.

I changed the subject a bit and told him that some German conservatives I had spoken to also wanted their country to play a more active military role, but that they all wanted Germany to be in the Western camp. Yes, he said, he could understand that, Germans were after all Europeans. But the Japanese were of a different race. It was most important to remember that.

Did this mean, I asked, that if Japan revised its constitution and became less dependent on the US, it would break away from the West, and form a regional alliance, based on cultural and racial affinities? He thought this over, growled for a moment or two, and said: “We will form alliances with some countries in Asia, of course, but ultimately our interests are with the industrialized Western democracies.” This sounded reassuring. Then he went on: “But of course our constitution will never be revised.”

Oh,” I said, “why do you think that?”

America will never allow it.”

For a moment I felt as though I were in Manila, that capital of postcolonial hangups. Then I realized that in a sense I was. What is blocking a political debate in Japan on its constitution, on its defense policy, on its relationship with the US, is not really the chauvinism of the right, or the pacifism of the left: it is the postwar deal itself. As long as this persists, Prime Minister Kaifu can hardly be blamed for not sending Japanese troops to the Gulf. He is only abiding by the constitution. And so long as the constitution stands as it is, so he should.

Yet blamed he is, especially in Washington. And Japan will be collectively blamed in the US for not being a good ally, for shirking its duty, for not standing up to be counted. Such blame will come in handy for trade protectionists and others who wish to stop Japan in its economic tracks. Japanese will then blame Americans for being jealous, imperious, even racist, and an already fragile relationship will be damaged even more. So what might have made sense in 1945, after the Japanese failed to bring the entire world under their imperial roof, has become an obstacle to the very things it was meant to achieve: a more open, democratic, responsible Japan, which would be America’s best friend forever after.

  1. 1

    Die Zeit, No. 6–1, February 1991.

  2. 2

    Die Tageszeitung, February 12, 1991.

  3. 3

    Asahi Shimbun, February 22, 1991.

  4. 4

    Gordon A. Craig, The Germans (Putnam, 1982), p. 85.

  5. 5

    D. C. Holtom, Modern Japan and Shinto Nationalism, revised edition (University of Chicago Press, 1947), p. 23.

  6. 6

    The Germans, p. 89.

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