Speaker: Ian Buruma, Bard College


QUESTION: For several decades after the Second World War, both Germany and Japan did all they could to sort of reintroduce themselves, reingratiate themselves, with the rest of the world—their subdued military policy particularly in the case of Japan—and generally trying to contribute as much to the common good as they could.

In the case of Germany, within 20 or 25 years their relations with their neighbors, including very much occupied countries, ranged somewhere from cordial to warm. That did not happen with Japan, and still has not happened. Why the difference?

IAN BURUMA: Well, there is a very long answer to that and a shortish one. One is that they were very different neighbors. Germany was in the middle of Europe and its neighbors to the west were Western democracies and were tied to West Germany in a military alliance as well as in unifying Europe. That was a very different proposition.

Japan's immediate neighbors were Communist China and South Korea, which was a sort of ally, and then you had North Korea. There wasn't an East Asian alliance that was in any way comparable to the European Community or NATO.

That's one reason.

I think the other reason is—and also I think one must not overstate the warmth of the relations between Germany and its immediate neighbors. Certainly I remember in 1988, when my own country, the Netherlands, beat Germany at the European soccer championship, more people went into the streets to celebrate than on May 8, 1945, at the end of the war. [Laughter]

Having said that, they were very different wars. And there were two Germanys, that's the other thing. There was West Germany and East Germany, and they had very different relations with the outside world.

As far as West Germany is concerned, when people talk about coming to terms with the past and all that kind of thing, people really are not talking about the invasion of Norway; they are talking about the Holocaust. That's a very specific crime committed by a criminal regime.

Japan didn't really have a criminal regime. They were the same people who had been in power before the war. And there wasn't an equivalent to the Holocaust in the sense of an ideological war to exterminate a particular people because they didn't even have the right to exist.

So for all these reasons I think relations with the outside world—I mean there are other reasons to do with a pacifist constitution and the fact that the wartime history became a very political issue in Japan and a very polarized one, unlike the history of the Third Reich in Germany, which is not a particularly polarizing issue.

So I think there are a large number of reasons. None of them have much to do with some kind of essential aspect of the Japanese character or anything of that kind.

Transcript of entire lecture

Lecture based off discussion of Japan 1941: Countdown to Infamy