Japan should learn from Germany: US expert

Updated: 2014-01-29 01:08

By Chen Weihua in Washington (China Daily)

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Amitai Etzioni, an Israeli-American sociologist who was a child in Germany when the Nazis rose to power in 1933, has a bit of advice for Japan.

The 85-year-old said the best thing Japan could do is sending 200 public intellectuals and political leaders to Germany to see what it is like for a country to face its past, come to terms with it, make it part of their schools and army, and never let it happen again.

"I was born as a Jewish child in Nazi Germany and I have some feelings about countries dealing with their past," Etzioni told a group on Monday at the National Press Club in Washington.

A renowned professor of international affairs at George Washington University, Etzioni said Germany has recognized its past, apologized for the atrocities, made amends, and educates its children and army every year about what went wrong in the nation's history.

"Unlike Japan, they faced their past, came to terms with it and learned from it. Japan should do the same," said Etzioni, a senior adviser to the White House from 1979 to 1980 and who, in 2001, was named among the top 100 US intellectuals.

Etzioni's words echoed the feelings of many in China and South Korea who have questioned why Japan has not been able to deal with its brutal behavior in World War II, as Germany has.

The question was raised again after Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine on Dec 26, the first anniversary of his second term. The shrine honors Japanese war dead, including 14 notorious Class-A and more than 1,000 Class-B World War II war criminals. The shrine has long been regarded by Chinese and Koreans as a symbol of Japanese militarism, which inflicted enormous suffering on people in the region.

Unlike Japanese leaders, German leaders are unambiguous in renouncing the nation's Nazi past. People remember well the sight of then-German chancellor Willy Brandt kneeling on the wet ground in December 1970 at the monument to the Jewish Ghetto massacre victims in Warsaw, Poland.

Not long after Abe's visit to Yasukuni, Steffen Seibert, spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, asked Japan to "honestly live up" to its role in the horrible events of the 20th century. He said that only on the basis of an honest accounting will it be possible to build a future with former foes — a conviction Germany has taken to heart.

Abe's controversy has not been limited to the visit to the shrine. The right-wing Japanese politician has publicly questioned whether Japan's actions in World War II should properly be defined as "aggression". He has also denied that the Japanese government forced tens of thousands of "comfort women" into serving as sex slaves for the Japanese military.

Abe and his right-wing cohorts have also endorsed a whitewash of the war in Japanese school textbooks and pushed for the revision of Japan's postwar pacifist Constitution.

Some of Abe's actions have also irritated its closest ally, the United States. The US has repeatedly voiced its disappointment at Abe's visit to Yasukuni and described it as exacerbating regional tensions.

Jonathan Pollack, director of the John L. Thornton China Center of the Brookings Institute, said he is not going to speculate on Abe's psychology.

"He probably calculates that ‘the US needs me so much that I can do what I want to do.' But I think what he did not sufficiently anticipate and maybe he did not really care about is the damage quickly done to such a vital bilateral relationship," Pollack said.

"(It's) not so much in terms of the American commitment to Japan, but the trust and comfort that the American leadership has in dealing with the Japanese leadership. I think, Abe, if anything, really did not calculate his interests carefully enough, and we're dealing with the consequences today."

Douglas Paal, vice-president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the US needs to send seasoned diplomats to Beijing, Tokyo and Seoul to listen to respective complaints and claims and rephrase them to the counterparts with a view of eliciting ideas about reducing tensions.

"Abe is trending toward taking a view of history significantly at odds with the American view, and that should be voiced," he said.

Paal, who came back from a visit to South Korea last week, said he doesn't think Koreans expect Abe to apologize for his visit to the shrine. "But if he continues repeatedly to visit the Yasukuni Shrine, high-level substantive meetings will not be possible."

In Paal's view, Seoul started to relax gradually its stance toward official meetings, but the Dec 26 visit to Yasukuni killed that initiative, much as it did China's reported attempt to thaw relations after China's ambassador called on Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida on Dec 20.

P.J. Crowley, former US assistant secretary of state for public affairs and now a professor at George Washington University, believes that Abe will listen carefully to what the US will tell him.

"But he is a political animal. He is going to do the things he is going to do, first and foremost as part of his own governing philosophy and his governing convictions," Crowley said.