BOOK REVIEW / War crimes with leisure centres: 'The Wages of Guilt' - Ian Buruma: Cape, 18.99 pounds: John David Morley on a new study of the spectacular careers of Germany and Japan

5The Bible is explicit: the wages of sin is death (Rom vi. 23). In The Wages of Guilt, his book on German and Japanese attitudes to the Second World War, Ian Buruma doesn't disclose what the wages of his title are. He gives us a tabloid headline, conjuring with sinful associations instead.

How do you anatomise the war guilt of two nations, or something like two hundred million people, many of whom are dead? One way is to go to Bonn and Tokyo, Auschwitz and Hiroshima, Buchenwald and Nanking. You report on the reactions to the Gulf War in the German capital and on the lack of them in Japan. You visit institutions that are present in one country and absent in the other, such as Yasukuni in Japan where the war dead (some of them war criminals) are enshrined, or the Agency for Clarification of Nazi Crimes in Germany.

You compare the textbooks used in schools, and the materials in memorials and museums. You establish that the court building in Nuremberg is still in use, while Sugamo Prison in Tokyo, where Japan's war criminals were executed, has been replaced by a shopping and leisure centre, Sunshine City. You wonder about the significance of all this.

This is the journalistic way, via the thumbnail sketch of the person and the place, in pursuit of broader chapter headings. It is Ian Buruma's way, and, unsurprisingly, it leads to journalistic findings that for the most part have been made before. The tabloid extremes at either end of the spectrum, the incorrigibly guilt-ridden in opposition to the incorrigibly defiant nationalists, are swiftly and sharply sketched. The vast middle ground between them remains shadowy.

What Buruma's book examines is not so much the thoughts and feelings of Germans and Japanese as the public relations job of their ritualised expression. Even the individuals he introduces at length, people with a mission to expose the truth in communities whose solidarity is nourished by keeping the truth hidden, are typical

individuals, caught in stylised and highly public attitudes of (for the most part) opposition. We never get beyond prototypes.

One interesting attempt to identify a mass attitude is to examine the evidence of mass culture such as the successful and popular television series Heimat (Germany) and Oshin (Japan). Oshin's husband is a nationalist, which does not keep him from being a sympathetic character, Buruma says, pointing out that 'to present a good and sincere Nazi is obviously more difficult to do'.

Perhaps not as difficult as he imagines. One could do worse than make a start with that shining knight of German resistance, Graf Stauffenberg, for example. Although never a Nazi, in the early Thirties Stauffenberg and almost all the young officers who were part of the July the Twentieth conspiracy were admirers of Hitler, and remained ardent nationalists until the very end. They were part of a cultural rather than political tradition that reaches from Goethe to Stefan George.

Stauffenberg belongs to the middle ground, or can be made to belong to the middle ground if one deconstructs the symbol, gets away from the cliches and pays close attention to the biography of the man. The ambivalence of the middle ground is the whole story. Dwelling on just a few episodes, paying attention to individual biographies and rounding them out with reference to their larger background, was the approach most successfully taken by Norma Field three years ago in her book In the Realm of a Dying Emperor.

Buruma's rambling, peripatetic book lacks a focus. It avoids self- righteousness, but it lacks empathy with the people and the concerns it examines. Even on completion, the book still reads a bit like a project outline submitted for a grant. The scope of the inquiry is too large for three hundred pages. Inevitably it is trawled with too shallow a net.

In the later chapters, when a much tighter focus is given, such as the unlikely but intelligent comparison of controversial speeches given by former president of the Bundestag Philipp Jenninger, and by the mayor of Nagasaki, Hitoshi Motoshima, he comes to some illuminating conclusions. Although the actions of the two men were different in almost all respects ('Jenninger had not confessed enough, and Motoshima had talked too much'), both had 'broken the rules of their cultures' and were ostracised.

Buruma argues that 'it was the suspicion of historical myth- making and national romanticism that made the Federal Republic intellectually bracing'. Yet this same suspicion also imposes restrictions on Buruma's own analysis. Even if one disagrees, as he does, with the notion of a Sonderweg, a special track record that makes the Third Reich appear the logical culmination of German history, it is not a good idea to give the historical dimension such short shrift.

Historical myth-making and national romanticism were among the many influences that flowed into National Socialism, from the beginning of the 19th century on, taking in such disparate phenomena as Wagner, neo-Romanticism, the founding of the Reich in 1871, and youth movements such as the Wandervogel. The yeast of National Socialism was as much emotional mysticism as post-Versailles bitterness, hyper-inflation in the Twenties and unemployment in the Thirties.

Buruma points out that the ideas of German thinkers such as Fichte and Herder had an influence in nationalist circles in Japan, just as the emperor system was admired by nationalists in Germany. This might have been the opportunity for a comparative discussion of nationalism in specific cultural terms. The roles of obedience and loyalty, for example, essential prerequisites for what happened in both countries - what were their origins and how did they differ?

Or what about the striking role of providence in both dictatorships? Vorsehung, in Germany, and tenmei in Japan, represented the actions of Hitler and Hirohito as God-given. Nor does Buruma discuss the consequences of the meagre pre-war democratic experience of the two countries. Resisting the notion of national identity, he is reluctant to explore the roots of the extreme nationalism that led both countries to war, which in this reader's judgement at least is a fatal omission.

(Photograph omitted)