Passport to the suffering club: Ian Buruma on why all America's minorities want to join Jews on the rollcall of victims

Click to follow
The Independent Online
IT CAN cost up to pounds 40,000 to buy a full-page advertisement in the New York Times. When Emperor Akihito of Japan visited the United States last month, some clearly thought it was worth the money to place an advertisement addressed to 'The United Nations and All Concerned Americans'.

The message was that Japan has never apologised for the Second World War, never compensated the victims and consistently lied about its crimes. The lie that Japanese troops had been liberating Asian countries from Western colonial powers was 'propagated daily in Japanese classrooms and press'. Japan, therefore, should not be allowed to join the UN Security Council.

The allegations are only half true. Though Japan's wartime record has been fudged and sometimes justified by officials, the idea that the country fought a war of liberation is not the main message passed to schoolchildren. Japanese prime ministers have expressed their regrets; Hosokawa Mirohiro, who made the most direct acknowledgement of past aggression, faced an assassination attempt as a result. And the victims of Japanese militarism have been compensated, albeit inadequately.

But I suspect that Japan is not really the main point of the New York Times advertisement, paid for by groups such as the Korean American Coalition on Jungshindae (Comfort Women), and the Rochester Chinese Association. The point, rather, is the status of Chinese and Korean groups in the US. Communal identity, which has become an obsessive concern of many Americans, is more and more based on shared victimhood. As Jews, Koreans, Chinese, and increasingly African-Americans, too, become secular, bourgeois suburban all-Americans, memories of victimhood - and maybe the odd bit of slang and a few native dishes - are all they have left to make them feel special. And since the Jews, for obvious reasons, are the champions of victimhood, some of the other groups feel left out. Victimhood is seen as a sign of power.

Chinese, Koreans and other Asians, did suffer terribly under the Japanese, and Japanese governments have not done as much to acknowledge this as (West) German governments have in the case of the Nazi past. No Japanese prime minister has gone down on his knees in Nanking, as Willy Brandt did on the site of the Warsaw ghetto. But, horrible though the Japanese war in Asia undoubtedly was, there was no exact parallel with the Holocaust. There was never a Japanese plan to exterminate an entire race. Nanking was a ghastly massacre, but it was not Auschwitz. Yet the Chinese and Korean groups feel just as victimised as the Jews, and want the world to recognise this.

It is as if every victimised group wants its own Holocaust. And this feeling is encouraged by the present enthusiasm in the US for more and more Holocaust museums, centres, memorials, and other symbols of Jewish remembrance. Yes, the Holocaust was a unique crime: the absolute and sytematic denial of a people's right to live. But if Jews are to have a museum of their unique victimhood right in Washington DC, in the midst of other national institutions, why should the African-Americans not have a museum about slavery? If there is to be a Holocaust museum it should be in Berlin, not Washington.

The Holocaust museum is actually less a museum than a shrine, and a rather-too-pretty shrine at that. There is something disturbing about the placing of real trees in front of photographs of people being shot in a European forest. I did not care either for the display of a cattle-car, used to transport Jews to Treblinka, as if it were some tasteful piece of installation art. The piles of shoes that once belonged to the victims are too beautifully lit, and the replicas of iron death camp gates too artful. These are not pieces of historical evidence; they are fetishes, like splinters from the Cross. It is as though the visitor to Washington is redeemed, or blessed, after his or her pilgrimage to the Holocaust museum. For a few hours we can take on the identity of the victim whose card we select like an alternative passport from a box near the entrance.

No wonder that others, non- Jews, who yearn for a communal identity, want to be bona fide victims, or children of victims, too. This is unhealthy, not only because an identity based on victimhood or martyrdom is morbid, but also because it often ends up creating more victims. Eternal victims need eternal enemies. Koreans need the Japanese, Jews need Germans or Arabs, Serbs need Croats, and so on. It won't matter how often Japanese prime ministers apologise, Japan will still be seen as the enemy by many Korean and Chinese identity-seekers. Before long, Japanese will begin to feel victimised by their former victims.

If all this were only a problem of US identity politics, we could sit back and shake our heads yet again at the absurdity of American life. But we play the game of enemies and victims, too. The decline of British power, especially vis-a- vis Germany, has resulted in a resentful preoccupation in some circles with Britishness. A Britishness which is threatened by Germany, or a Europe dominated by Germany, or by 'Europe' tout court. During the D-Day commemorations, some of the tabloid papers wrote that 'our lads' did not fight on the Normandy beaches to be dominated by Brussels or the Bundesbank. British Eurosceptics sound more and more like a disaffected minority expressing its victimhood in a United States of Europe. So watch the NY Times for a full-page ad, railing against the iniquities of Europe, taken out by the UK Independence Party.

The author's 'Wages of Guilt' was published by Jonathan Cape last week.

(Photograph omitted)