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BOOK REVIEW | Ghosts in the Neighborhood - Why Japan is Haunted by its Past and Germany Is Not' by Walter F Hatch

"Ghosts in the Neighborhood" has its issues. But the primary argument is well made: in postwar reconciliation, apology is not the most important factor. 



Ghosts in the Neighborhood
From the book cover, courtesy of University of Michigan Press.

Ghosts in the Neighborhood - Why Japan is Haunted by its Past and Germany Is Not, by Walter F Hatch (2023), is part of a series by the University of Michigan Press. The series, including this volume, examines "conditions that make democracies emerge and dictatorships endure." 

This book in the series examines the role of regionalism in the achievement of post-World War II reconciliation within Asia and Europe. It argues persuasively that the establishment of political institutions such as the European Union and NATO are far more important than apologies or healthy bilateral trade. 

It concludes that the United States has promoted multilateralism in Europe, leading to reconciliation. Meanwhile in Asia, it finds the US has preferred a "hub and spokes" approach. That, a situation in which the US has a central position of control. 

Japan's Reconciliation Efforts

Japan has repeatedly expressed regret for its past behavior in China and Korea, Hatch concedes, "but to no avail." Economic interdependence — "commercial peace" (Pax Mercatoria) — is indeed a part of the equation, he suggests. But at times during the postwar Japan-China relationship, it has "inversely correlated with reconciliation." 

Hatch contrasts this with Germany's reconciliation with France, "its most important neighbor." Germany achieved reconciliation with France during the 1950s and 60s, but only became fully contrite later, in the 1970s. The difference, Hatch concludes, is the existence of regional institutions through which Germany has demonstrated "a credible commitment to cooperation." 

The multilateralism existent within Europe has enabled Germany to prove itself to be "a reliable partner." That stands in contrast to Japan, the author argues.  

Ghosts in the Neighborhood
Book cover (courtesy of University of Michigan Press)

The Impact of US Racism and European Colonialism

When searching for responsibility for these competing outcomes, Hatch places blame firmly at the feet of the United States of America. He is scathing in his condemnation of US twentieth century racism, largely attributing this to the difference in approach toward the two regions. 

US political elites identified Europeans as "nearly equal" partners Hatch states. Meanwhile, they looked down on Asians as "immature" junior partners who are "unprepared for a robust regionalism that excludes" the superpower that is the USA.

Absent from Hatch's analysis is cognizance that multilateralism could not have occurred within Asia on a timetable comparable to that of Europe. That is because most Asians were still being subjected to colonialism. Few independent nations existed. 

Asia's Battle for Independence

Relatively little changed in Asia with the defeat of Japan. The Pacific War, a battle between imperial powers for control over imperial possessions, was merely one of two concurrent conflicts that were occurring within the region. 

The parallel conflict entailed attempts of the people of Asia to throw out their imperial masters and claim independence. The second of these struggles ground on for decades after the defeat of Japan.

American sponsorship of multilateralism within Asia could not have commenced until its military had been driven off the Asian mainland by the Vietnamese in 1975. Realistically, the earliest date at which a US involvement might have been initiated was 1995, the year in which the US and Vietnam normalized relations

China, the Koreas, and Who? 

A fundamental problem also exists with Hatch's methodology. He chose to compare the relative experiences of postwar Japan and Germany through a pair of case studies: France and Poland for Germany and South Korea and China for Japan. But why only two? 

Why not three, four or five? Why not attempt to give some measure of voice to every nation in each region. 

It is hard to not deduce that this 2 + 2 methodology was chosen with a conclusion in mind, as short of opting for North Korea, there is no other Asian nation that fits Hatch's narrative. 

In reality, there is no history issue between Japan and "Asia". There are no region-wide ghosts applicable to Japan. The problems exist solely with China, the Koreas and the West. 

The West prefers its good war narrative in which it "saved" Asia by defeating the dreaded Japanese, an act for which the people of Asia should be eternally grateful. It is largely oblivious to the long term preamble of the Pacific War, preferring to believe that the problems essentially began on December 7, 1941

With the exceptions of China and the Koreas, Asians accept that the war was an imperial war. In other words, the Japanese were not the only imperial power attempting to control them. While not exonerating the Japanese, they, like the people of Japan, find it hard to view that conflict in polarized tones — as a struggle between the forces of good and evil. 

Among Asian countries, the perception of and trust in Japan outside of China and the Koreas is extremely high. Japan is routinely selected as the most trustworthy nation in Asia. Moreover, it is viewed as a highly desirable tourist destination

China Discounted 

In the case of China, Hatch identifies the role that Japan-bashing came to play in the mid-1980s once "Communism began to lose its "stickiness." This bashing became an ideological glue binding the Chinese people to the party." He is clearly willing to downgrade the significance of Chinese hostility on the basis of China's political construction. 

He then explores and rejects theories that could provide a common link for the antipathy towards Japan within both South Korea and China. Thereby he forwards the South Korean enmity as credible. Yet as already discussed, South Korea is not representative of Asia, it is an outlier. 

Ghosts in the Neighborhood
Former South Korean President Moon Jae In with a South Korean comfort woman on August 14, 2018, the same year the South Korean government designated the date as "Comfort Women Day."

A Culture of Victimhood

It is often forgotten that Korea is, or should be, a single country. The peninsula was divided as the spoils of war between the United States and Russia. Reunification by force was prevented by Chinese advance into the subsequent civil war. Division occurred along the 38th parallel, a quintessential "line in the sand."

In the initial decades of the division, there was a general sense that the two Koreas would ultimately reunify. That began to diminish after the failure of the Koreas to emulate German reunification in the early 1990s. There presently exists the real possibility of permanent division. 

In this post German reunification era, an issue for South Koreans is the means through which they identify themselves. That is, how they express their nationalism. There is much in which South Koreans might ordinarily feel pride, including history, culture, cuisine and language. Yet these they share with their mortal enemy to the North. 

With all that is positive thus downgraded, it would seem that South Korea has chosen to identify itself in negative terms ー as a perennial victim

The logical targets for South Korea's ire are the United States, China and Russia, as they brought about the Peninsula's division. The US, however, as the South's military protector, is essentially off limits. So is China, for economic reasons. Russia, for all of its ills, was nonetheless one of the allied powers. That, it seems, leaves Japan. 

Russia Ignored

The case study chapters concerning China and South Korea are nonetheless informative. So are those related to France and Poland. Nevertheless, the choice of pairs in both regions - Europe and Asia - is problematic. Conspicuously absent is Russia.

Russia and China were the principal targets of the axis powers within their theaters of the Second World War. In the case of Europe, Hatch is suggesting that reconciliation and regionalism can be said to have occurred despite the Russians being excluded from the process. On the other hand, to Hatch the involvement of China appears central in Asia.

France's Reasons to Remain Circumspect

In respect to France, there are several reasons, little noted by Hatch, why a rapid and successful reconciliation should not have been a surprise. As with the British and the Dutch, the French fought two wars within the collective conflicts known as World War II. The first was to defend their independence. The second was to preserve their right to continue the denial of freedom to others.

Those others were their colonial subjects within Asia and Africa. Moreover, in the immediate postwar decades, the French might ordinarily have been demanding contrition from Germany. Instead, they were brutally attempting to reimpose control within their colonies. That is true of Vietnam and Algeria in particular. 

Added to this is the reality of large-scale French collaboration in the war. For example, the ease with which the Germans were able to convince the French people and authorities to participate in the deportation of French Jews. In the words of the German ambassador, "the anti-Semitic tendencies of the French people are so strong that they do not need further support on our part whatsoever." 

A certain degree of deference towards the Germans on the part of the French was likely. That is lest they bring unwanted attention upon themselves. 

Ghosts in the Neighborhood
Russia still occupies a group of smaller Japanese islands just off the coast of Hokkaido. In area, they are a far cry from the size of East Germany. (© Sankei/JAPAN Forward)

Questionable Comparisons

Other troubling comparisons and assumptions are sprinkled within Ghosts in the Neighborhood as well. In the introduction, Hatch employs a "thought exercise." He asks the reader to compare the lack of opposition to German unification with the "explosive, probably even violent" reaction from China and South Korea "if Japan were to undergo a similar expansion in size and power." 

An expansion of territory by Japan of that scale could only be achieved through invasion and an act of war. Should that happen, a violent reaction is a given. One wonders, however, how this potentiality can be compared with the peaceful 1989 return to the German state of its eastern portion. That territory had essentially been under Russian occupation since the termination of World War II. 

Hatch's choice of "expert" when discussing the comfort women controversy was also troubling. It resulted in him buying into the argument that the comfort women had been "forcibly rounded up." That put him in the position of characterizing that thoroughly discredited claim as "the accepted wisdom." 

"Brutal," which is a favorite adjective for Western commentators in their description of the Japanese colonial tenure within Korea is duly used. But true to his recognition of the extent of Western racism in the prewar period and beyond, Hatch is even more exacting in his references to the US colonial impact upon the Philippines, which he characterizes as "typically ruthless."

When it comes to numbers, however, there is inconsistency. Korean wartime labor (2,000,000) and comfort women (100,000) estimations are preceded by the qualifier "as many as." In the case of Filipino deaths during the pacification period of US rule (250,000), "at least" is employed. 

The Accepted Wisdom of the Victor

There is much that is questionable about the assumptions and methodology employed by Hatch. But at least he takes us away from the outdated chestnut concerning postwar comparisons of Germany and Japan. That is the fallacy that the Germans have confronted their past while the Japanese have not. And likewise, that those who fail to learn the lessons of history are doomed to reprise the mistakes of the past

Or does he? The book ends with a quote from a meeting held "several years ago" with Masaru Tamamoto. Tamamoto is a social critic who claims that in being "American-authorized," Japan "does not own its own history."

This, too, is consistent with Hatch's primary argument of the hub and spoke approach of the US towards Asia. Yet, when Hatch paraphrases Tamamoto on the subject of the past, he states that Japan "appears to remember almost nothing." 

But why would that be so? Tamamoto was making the point that Japan knows and remembers a great deal, but is obliged to bite its tongue. That is because Japan's version of events does not fit the good war narrative insisted upon by the US. Nor does Japan's knowledge "fit" with the "accepted wisdom" on issues such as the comfort women, Korean wartime labor and the Nanjing Massacre. 

Japan and India Ghosts in the Neighborhood
Quad leaders from Australia, United States, Japan and India. In the Prime Minister's Office (Japan) on May 24, 2022 (Photo by Yasuhiro Yajima).

Asia's Move Toward Regionalism - Responding to the China Threat

There is a further issue with this ending as well. The conversation with Masaru Tamamoto that took place "several years ago" occurred in the same year that my daughter was born. She finishes high school next year, in 2024. Much has occurred in terms of reconciliation and regionalism within Asia during my daughter's lifetime.

Indeed, a great deal has occurred during the past few years. In this year, of 2023, the pace of Asian regionalism has moved into overdrive. The driving force — sadly — is a negative one. That is the threat of an expansionist China. 

If history is to ultimately conclude that the forces that drove both Asian and European postwar reconciliation were the same, the dominant force in Europe would also need to be recognized as the Russian threat.

Ghosts in the Neighborhood - Why Japan is Haunted by its Past and Germany Is Not, by Walter F Hatch, has its issues. Not the least among them is the subtitle itself. 

But the primary argument is well made. When it comes to postwar reconciliation, apology is not the most important factor. That reality is most certainly borne out by both the German and Japanese experiences. 

About the Book

Title: Ghosts in the Neighborhood - Why Japan is Haunted by its Past and Germany Is Not

Author: Walter F Hatch

Publisher: University of Michigan Press

Series: Weiser Center for Emerging Democracies

ISBN: 978-0-472-90310-8

Acquire the book: This book is available in hardcover ($75 USD), paperback ($29.95 USD) and digital formats. Or read it for free on the web, courtesy of the publisher. 

For additional information: See the publisher's website for additional information about the book, to read the book for free on the web, or to purchase other formats.


Reviewed by:Paul de Vries

Find other reviews and articles by the author on Asia Pacific history at this link.