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Home > Books & Journals > Book Review Last Updated: 11:21 05/28/2007
Book Review #71: May 28, 2007

"Culture and Power in Germany and Japan: The Spirit of Renewal" By Nils-Johan Jǿrgensen

Reviewed by Sir Hugh Cortazzi

Title: Culture and Power in Germany and Japan: The Spirit of Renewal
Authors: Nils-Johan Jǿrgensen
Publisher: Global Oriental
Date/Time: November 2006
Pages: 318 pages
ISBN: 1-905246-07-6


The author of this interesting and thought-provoking study was a Norwegian diplomat who served in both Germany and Japan. He acquired a good knowledge of both countries and their languages. His analysis is based on careful study and not blurred by prejudice.

His theme is outlined the introduction: "Two states, two powers, were defeated in the Second World War. Yet though crushed they arose from the ashes…and gradually regained respect, status and leadership. Germany and Japan have striking similarities in recent history through war and then economic and gradual political renewal, but at the same time display a very different cultural and historical experience."

Inevitably the author deals at some length with the differences between the two countries in their attitudes towards the Second World War and the horrific acts which took place in the years leading up to 1945. This means in the case of Germany focussing on the nature of Nazism and the holocaust and German feelings of guilt and remorse. But he also draws attention to the horrors which resulted from the saturation bombings of such German cities as Hamburg, Berlin and Dresden which left many Germans feeling that they had been made victims. He notes that in Japan the sense of guilt is absent despite the fact that thirty million people died in the Pacific War. Shame at Japan's defeat and regret for the suffering caused by the war is balanced by the belief that Japan was more a victim than an aggressor. The atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the burning of Tokyo made many Japanese feel that any 'war crimes' which may have been carried out by Japanese were outweighed by the crimes perpetrated by the Americans in their attacks on Japan. While only neo-Nazis attempt to justify Hitler's policies some Japanese still argue that the East Asian War was justified. The only Japanese mistake was that they were defeated. The above is, of course, an oversimplification of a key element in a book which makes many interesting comparisons.

One of the author's main theses concerns the nature of German and Japanese culture. He asserts (page 214) that "The story of Germany and Japan tells us that culture is destiny – without or with democracy." This is not an easy sentence to understand. But one important element (page 131) was "the alliance between culture and power, art and politics in Germany and Japan as both countries moved towards nationalism and imperialism in the 1930s." He points out (page 131) that "German and Japanese fascism hijacked symbols, myths, rituals and ceremonies and resettled them in the new communication of militarist ideology in a deliberate strategy of aesthetics." He notes (page 128) that "the art of the totalitarian mind is to capture essential symbols totally and to wage a total war." He adds provocatively: "in that sense German and Japanese fascism is related to Al Qaeda and international terrorist ideology."

An important element in Japanese culture to which he draws attention is "Japan's ability (page 43) to borrow, adapt and improve ideas…[which] is a characteristic feature of Japan's rebuilding after the war." In both countries great emphasis was placed on "renewal." In Germany the terms used most frequently both by Hitler and in the reconstruction of Germany incorporated the word wieder (again).

In a thought provoking chapter headed "The Troublesome Faustian identity" he draws attention to the continuing German angst (anxiety) and the difficulty for modern Germans to express pride in being German. (page 175) "The lingering German problem is the absence of national identity and patriotism…" Most Japanese with the belief inculcated in them via the Nihonjinron (the theory of Japanese uniqueness) do not have such difficulty.

The author underlines the different international stances of the two countries in the beginning of the twenty-first century. Both countries are possibly the most significant economic and political powers in Europe and Asia respectively. Both seek to become permanent members of the Security Council and both have an important relationship with the United States, but if only for geographical reasons their external policies differ. Germany after reunification is the most important power in central Europe. The European Union is key to Germany's future but the concept is of a European Germany, not a German Europe. The entente with France is fundamental, while relations with Russia are vital. Germany opposed the American and British intervention in Iraq not least because German opinion was almost unanimously opposed to the intervention but it also represented an assertion of German independence after reunification. For Japan the American alliance remains paramount and despite the opposition of Japanese public opinion the Japanese government supported the American intervention in Iraq. Yet for Japan relations with China and Korea remain crucial. Japan will become a more normal country and will develop a more independent foreign policy. Both countries have difficult balancing acts to perform.

I must take issue with the author on one important point. He implies that Britain like the Soviet Union wanted Emperor Hirohito indicted as a war criminal. I have seen no documentary evidence to suggest that this was ever the official policy of the British government.

No review can do justice to a book which covers so many facets of the history, culture and policies of two such important countries. It deserves to be read widely but it is not light reading.

(This review was produced in collaboration with the Japan Society (UK).)

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