Parallel pasts

A few weeks ago I attended a conference in Berlin, organised by the European Council Foreign Relations (where I worked for five years), on relations between Europe and Japan. What particularly struck me as I listened to the discussions during the course of the day was the lack of common ground between the German and Japanese participants. There are striking parallels in the histories of the two countries – one in Europe, the other in Asia – that go back a century and a half. As a result, policymakers in the two countries now face similar challenges. But instead of creating a sense of empathy between participants from Germany and Japan, the history they share seemed to create tension between them. I wondered whether, because the history that the two countries share is such a difficult one, it may separate them rather than bringing them together. In other words, perhaps Germany and Japan are divided by their parallel pasts.

The parallels between Germany and Japan go back to the rapid rise of the two countries in the second half of the nineteenth century – the Gründerzeit in Germany and the Meiji Restoration in Japan. (Germany was in many ways the model for Japan’s modernization – in particular, as John Dower describes in his book Embracing Defeat, Meiji Japan borrowed Wilhelmine Germany’s constitutional and legal system.) As Theo Sommer of Die Zeit pointed out at the beginning of the conference, the two countries also became actors in international politics around the same time. They both had a strong militarist tradition that became dominant in the 1930s, when they expanded in their respective continents in order to acquire Lebensraum. After defeat in World War II, they both renounced the use of military force and, as Hanns W. Maull (who was at the conference) argued, became “civilian powers”.

While the post-war strategy of relying on the United States for security and focusing on economic development was brilliantly successful, Germany and Japan were forced after the end of the Cold War to make a greater contribution to international security. For example, they started to contribute to UN peacekeeping operations in parallel in the 1990s. In this context, the concept of “normality” was central to foreign policy debates in both countries (I’ve written about the concept of “normality” in German foreign policy and there has been a similar debate since the early 1990s about whether Japan can, or should, become a “normal country”, or futsu no kuni). For different reasons, the two countries are now both under pressure to go further in terms of security policy – for example to increase defence spending (currently around 1.3 percent of GDP in the case of Germany and 1 percent in the case of Japan). But policymakers in both countries face resistance from the public, which has pacificst tendencies, and they therefore have to proceed carefully. Give all this, one might think that German and Japanese policymakers would identify with each other.

However, there seemed little sense among the German and Japanese participants at the conference that they were in the same boat. Instead of focusing on the similarities, they seemed to focus on the differences between them and their countries. Not only that, it almost felt as if there was a competitive element, especially from the German side. The German participants complained that Japan hadn’t come to terms with its past in the same way Germany has. Why couldn’t Japan reconcile with China as Germany had with France? they asked. “For Japan, China is not France”, one of the Japanese participants responded. “The United States is France.” (Ordinary Germans seem to share this scepticism about whether Japan has learned from its past: at the conference Mathieu Duchâtel of ECFR presented the findings of a survey that showed that the German public worry about a “right-wing militarisation” in Japan under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.)

It seems to me that this disconnect between German and Japanese policymakers matters because of the way that security in Europe and Asia is increasingly connected. Japanese policymakers recognise the threat to European security posed by Russian revisionism and its relevance to them in Asia. For example, it was in part to deter China from a similar attempt to acquire territory by military force that Japan joined the West in imposing sanctions against Russia, even though this jeopardised the progress that was being made in resolving the dispute between the two countries over the Northern Territories. But German policymakers do not seem to recognise the existential threat that the rise of China poses to Japan – “we will do whatever it takes to survive as a neighbor of China”, one of the Japanese participants said. It seems to me that Germans should take these threat perceptions more seriously instead of simply lecturing Japan – or, as one Japanese analyst put it to me, “looking down from above”.


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