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Japan, Turkey And The Difficult Exercise Of Repentance

When a country acknowledges atrocities it has committed, it implies a mix of democratic culture and confidence that is more the exception than the rule.

Japan's PM Shinzo Abe at Jerusalem's Yad Vahsem Holocaust memorial museum in January.
Japan's PM Shinzo Abe at Jerusalem's Yad Vahsem Holocaust memorial museum in January.
Dominique Moïsi


PARIS — "All history is contemporary history," the great Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce wrote. This should be kept in mind as we witness a succession of historical commemorations linked to World War I and II.

As decades pass, the meaning of these ceremonies changes, not only with time but also because there's constant comparison between nations on the topic: "Tell me how you handle your past, and I'll tell you who you are."

This is especially true regarding repentance. On this issue, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Japan now seems to rank somewhere between Konrad Adenauer's Germany and Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Turkey. Since Abe's emotional April 29 speech in Washington, where both chambers of Congress gathered for the first time ever to hear a Japanese leader, Japan inched ever so cautiously closer to Germany on the repentance scale. He finally expressed his condolences to the American people and recognized that the actions of his country had "brought suffering to the peoples in Asian countries." But he went no further, missing a critical opportunity to apologize to the Asian "comfort women" who were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese army during World War II.

When it comes to the recognition of one's past, there are of course infinite models and nuances. Each country is a specific case, but three models or counter-models are especially distinguishable, between Germany, Turkey and Japan. If Germany is now in its proper place in Europe and the world, it's because it has recognized its historical responsibility for Nazi crimes in the clearest way possible. Let's remember Chancellor Willy Brandt, on his knees in Warsaw on Dec. 7, 1970, in front of the monument for the victims of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, or President Richard von Weizsäcker’s speech on May 8, 1985, calling on the Germans to consider May 8, 1945, a "day of liberation." Of course, Germany shouldn't be idealized, as the new movie Labyrinth of Liesemphasizes. Even in Germany, efforts to remember such suffering have been long and hard.

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Willy Brandt memorial plate in Warsaw — Photo: Szczebrzeszynski

At the extreme opposite end of the spectrum, there is now Recep Erdogan's Turkey, which has struck a posture that is harmful for its image and its interests. As the 100-year anniversary of the systematic destruction of Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire is being commemorated, Erdogan refuses to acknowledge the wretched chapter in the country's history and has outspokenly rejected the word "genocide" to describe it. This despite the fact that a significant segment of the Turkish population accepts the use of the term "genocide."

Halfway is not good enough

On the spectrum between Germany and Turkey, there's Japan. Behind an energetic and flamboyant prime minister, Japan is happy to return to its role as the United States' first ally in Asia. Thanks to China's irresistible rise in power, it's an ally that's rediscovering itself as desired — if not loved. Tokyo has done the absolute minimum regarding repentance. While it's probably enough for the United States, it's certainly not enough for Asia.

It is admittedly very difficult to find the right tone concerning historical wrongs, for one's own country and for others. China, which very firmly condemns Japan's revisionist attempts, doesn't seem in a rush to confront its own history and crimes committed by its regime. In fact, the USSR and China are responsible for the deaths of a larger number of their own citizens than Nazi Germany or Japan.

But confronting the past to transcend it with a clear conscience in approaching the future implies a mix of democratic culture and self-confidence, which is more the exception than the rule. Germany first had to experience the convergence of multiple factors before becoming an excellent student regarding repentance: the utter monstrosity of the Nazi crimes, the presence of enlightened and visionary Christians such as Konrad Adenauer at the head of post-World War II Germany, an external threat, the USSR, and finally the building of modern Europe.

These kind of conditions aren't found in Japan or Turkey. Japan believes it already suffered for its crimes, which aren't comparable to those of Nazi Germany, with the U.S. bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Japanese remain convinced that the atom bomb wouldn't have been tested on a "white people." Turkey, meanwhile, hides behind the passing of so many years, refusing to claim responsibility for crimes committed by the dying Ottoman Empire a century ago. It won't acknowledge that the Armenian genocide influenced the masterminds of the Nazi extermination and served as a model for the Holocaust.

History must be handled with caution, but also with responsibility. The present takes the past hostage, even if it's understandable that European leaders don't want to be next to North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un in Moscow during this week's commemorations of the victory over Nazi Germany. In the same way, the past should not eternally block the present. And on this matter, repentance is a sign of strength, not of weakness.

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