Editor’s note: Ian Buruma, an Anglo-Dutch writer, straddles the distinct cultures of Asia and the West with ease and insight. He is an authority on the cultures of Japan, China and Asia at large. The recent series of moves by Japan appear both provocatively symbolic as well as tactical. Do they signal a rising militarism? How can China bolster the soft power of its culture? Is national and local identity threatened by homogenizing forces of modernity? Buruma spoke to Shanghai Daily reporter Ni Tao about these issues on the sidelines of the 2013 Shanghai Book Fair, where he was a guest speaker.
Q: You compared German and Japanese attitudes toward their wartime atrocities in your book “The Wages of Guilt” (1994). Why do Japanese gloss over war crimes? Is it because they, as Ruth Benedict asserted in her book “The Chrysanthemum and The Sword,” have a sense of shame rather than a sense of guilt?
A: I don’t think it is a cultural thing, it’s a political thing. In 1945, the Americans wrote the new constitution for Japan. They banned the use of military force in Japanese policy. So Japan was no longer allowed to have armed forces.
Most Japanese were happy with that. They didn’t want another war. Some Japanese were not so happy with that. They tend to be nationalists on the right.
Shinzo Abe is the grandson of one famous politician, Kishi Nobusuke, who was the minister of munitions during the war and very much against this Pacifist Constitution. And what happened as a result of this political split is that the view of history is also split.
So pacifists, and people more progressive and liberal see the Peace Constitution as a good thing because Japan learned its lesson: It unleashed a terrible war, committed atrocities which should never happen again.
And those who want to change the constitution have to answer that, well, yes, bad things happened in the war, but every country has fought wars. We should be able to be proud of ourselves. We didn’t do anything worse than any other country. All that stuff about the Nanking Massacre and 731 (Note: the troops of Kwantung Army Unit 731 that performed vivisection on prisoners and waged biochemical warfare against civilians) are left-wing propaganda. We want to be patriotic, and have our own military policy, not be so dependent on the United States, and change the constitution.
So, history has become an argument for that. It’s not that the Japanese people don’t know about the war, or don’t want to talk about it. It’s become a very political issue.
Q: Was Japanese bitterness about defeat eased by the fact that Japanese were the first victims of atomic bombs, which some perceived as divine punishment?
A: That’s also true about not feeling so much guilty about surrendering.
It’s more that it makes them feel less guilty about terrible things they did. So in other words, they can argue, well, terrible things happen in a war. We did bad things to other people, bad things happened to us. We can get even and start a new beginning. There is no need to feel particularly guilty or bitter.
But there are always Japanese who took a different view. The first books on Nanking Massacre, even before it became a big issue in China, were written by Japanese journalists and historians in the seventies. So opinions are very divided, and very politicized.
Q: There are a lot of international eyewitness accounts of the Nanking Massacre. Most Japanese tiptoe around it but don’t deny it. Why are some revisionists stubbornly denying it? What is their argument based on?
A: For the same reasons as the first question. Japanese wartime atrocities are seen by right-wing nationalists as left-wing propaganda.
Because they see it as propaganda, they feel they have to deny it. Not many serious historians in Japan deny it.
In fact, the people who deny it are not historians. They tend to be activists, promoters, politicians, journalists and so on. But they are not academic historians.
Very few Japanese academic historians deny it. There is some disagreement about the number of people who were killed and so on, because we will never know exactly how many people were killed. There is no record.
But there is no disagreement in serious historical circles that it happened.
So the people who deny it always do it for political reasons.
Q: You reviewed Chinese director Lu Chuan’s film “Nanking! Nanking!” (2009), which you regarded highly. Why?
A: I think I wrote that in some ways the reality was worse than what Lu showed in that film. In some ways it was fairly soft on the Japanese. But I think it was generally very fair.
What I thought was very good about the film was that: first, I like the way it looked. He has a great visual sense. He also treated something very sensitive and political, without a political agenda. He didn’t want to make a political case one way or another. He wanted to show the human drama of a historical event.
And it’s a very painful human drama of course. But it showed humanity on both sides, and that good and bad existed on both sides. I think that made it a much better film than most propaganda films that have appeared on this particular subject so far.
Q: Could you compare Lu Chuan’s film with Clint Eastwood’s epic movie “Letters From Iwo Jima” (2006), which depicted the war from the perspective of Japanese soldiers?
A: Yes, you can compare those films because it is uninteresting if you show very dark episodes of history in which one side is devils, the other side is victims, because reality is never like that, even though of course it’s true that the aggressors in Nanjing were Japanese and the victims were Chinese.
There is no question about that. But what makes a real human drama is that it showed even the aggressors are not all devils.
Q: Is the concern over Japanese remilitarization real or exaggerated?
A: Remilitarization is only part of what Abe and Japanese nationalists want. Rewriting the constitution — I think there is a serious argument to be made for it, because if they don’t rewrite the constitution, Japan will always be dependent on the US for its security.
That means the US will have to always be the policeman in East Asia that stands between China, Japan and Korea, which is not a healthy situation.
So in my view, China and Japan have to work out some kind of arrangement.
Abe and his nationalists want more than that. They are ideologues who want to strengthen the position of the emperor, want all kinds of things I would be against. They are right-wingers.
Does that mean Japan will become militaristic and start another war? No, it doesn’t mean that.
The consequences are probably that if they are able to do what they want to do — which they probably can’t, because most Japanese wouldn’t go along with it — it would be worse for the Japanese themselves, domestically, because their nation could be more oppressive and so on. I don’t think they can do that.
But in foreign policy, the essential issue is how Japan and China and the United States, and South Korea to some extent, can work out their future security arrangement. Reconciliation, and some balance has to be found so that there won’t be a conflict.
Of course there are conflicting interests, but it’s never in their interests to let them escalate into a military conflict.
China and Japan have to work something out between them. I don’t think it is a serious worry that Japan is going to be like the Japan in the 1930s. That’s very unlikely.
Q: Concerning an arrangement, one obstacle is the high instability and predictability of Japanese politics, in which prime ministers come and go. How will this capriciousness impact its relations with its neighbors?
A: It’s not so capricious.
Of course, prime ministers keep on coming and going. But the policy and ideology are not set by those prime ministers. They are set by the parties.
And the argument about the Japanese constitution and the right to use military force and so on has been going on since Abe’s grandfather. So it’s an ongoing debate in Japan. And they have to resolve that themselves.
China in a way has nothing to do with it, it’s all domestic, all about the constitution, about consolidating their power and domestically wanting a more nationalistic agenda. That has a lot to do with Japan’s relationship with the United States, understandably. Nevertheless, I’m not saying I’m in sympathy with them.
Q: China’s rise is often perceived differently from that of other powers that rose before, as if China is still the “other.” What is the origin of this perception?
A: I don’t think people in Europe view China as an enemy or a hostile power. People are fascinated about China.
In fact, American nationalism is a little bit harsher, again because America is a very diverse country, and more so than any other country I think, because it often sees itself in terms of having a common outside enemy.
Again, this is not the majority of the Americans. Many Americans are very ignorant of the outside world. It’s easy to stir up the feelings like “Oh, the Chinese are a threat, we have to be tough on China. Otherwise, they will take over.”
Chinese may be obsessed with security. Americans are obsessed too, partly because it’s a nation of immigrants, who escaped from all kinds of troubles, and so the idea that America has to be absolutely safe is a very strong sentiment.
So, anything on the outside that might be able to threaten that sense of safety is often seen as a threat. And China plays that role.
I don’t think it’s like the “Yellow Peril” in the 19th century, that there is a strong racial element in it, because people don’t think that way anymore. But the worry about a new power that could impose itself on Europe or the United States is certainly there, rightly or wrongly.