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.
Since taking part in a study trip to Tokyo (which prompted me to write another post on Japan and the concept of “civilian power”) over the summer, I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of collective memory in international relations in Asia. In Tokyo, where we spent a week in discussions with policymakers and analysts from all over Asia, we talked a lot about history and the role it plays in tensions between Asian countries. In particular, there is an ongoing dispute between China and Japan over the Japanese occupation of Manchuria in 1931 and the Nanking massacre in 1937. This is particularly important because it plays into the dispute between China and Japan over the Senkaku islands, which the Chinese call the Diaoyu. There are also acrimonious disputes between Japan and Korea over issues such as the “comfort women” the Japanese forced into sexual slavery during World War II.
In an essay I wrote in 2011, I argued that Germany should no longer be thought of as a “civilian power” but rather as a “geo-economic power”. I argued that the weakening of the Federal Republic’s commitment to multilateralism during the previous decade and its increasing economic assertiveness, particularly within the eurozone, undermined its claim to be a “civilian power” – that is, one that used multilateral institutions and economic co-operation rather than military power to achieve its foreign policy goals. The concept of “civilian power” was originally used by François Duchêne to describe the European Union and was applied to the Federal Republic by Hanns W. Maull, who, in one of his first essays on the subject in the early 1990s, described Germany and Japan as “new civilian powers” – “prototypes” of “a new type of international power”. So if Germany is no longer a “civilian power”, what about Japan?
A few weeks ago the cover of the Spiegel showed Chancellor Angela Merkel in combat fatigues with the headline: “German weapons for the world”. The story (available in English online) was about the so-called Merkel doctrine – an implicit policy of staying out of difficult and unpopular Western interventions such as the one in Libya last year while selling arms to other countries, in particular in the Middle East, to enable them take greater “responsibility” for security. The Federal Republic has traditionally had a comparatively restrictive arms-export policy and in particular rejected the sale of arms by German companies to undemocratic governments or countries in “conflict regions”. But under Merkel, according to the Spiegel story, the German defence industry – which employs 80,000 people – is booming as the government increasingly approves the sale of weapons to undemocratic regimes in areas of actual or potential conflict.
I just watched Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, Paul Schrader’s strange 1985 biopic (if it can be called that) of the Japanese writer Yukio Mishima, who committed seppuku, or ritual suicide, in Tokyo in 1970 after a failed attempt to inspire an uprising against the post-war state by the Japanese army. I’d wanted to watch the film for a long time, mainly because I am a big fan of Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver has been one of my favourite movies since watching it in a film studies class at school) but also because Mishima is such an interesting figure. Mishima was a real-life Schrader (anti-)hero – lonely, ascetic, tortured and ultimately self-destructive. But this is also a film about the struggle to reconcile life and art – or, as Mishima put it, to achieve “the harmony of pen and sword” – which is why perhaps critics see it as Schrader’s most personal film.