COLUMN ONE : The Axis: Odd Twins on Ascent : A former wartime embassy built by Hitler is a sturdy reminder of old alliances. But the means by which Japan and Germany are coming to grips with their past are poles apart.


This is the house that Hitler built for Emperor Hirohito.

Outward signs of the building's identity are subtle, but unmistakable. Its austere granite facade and bold square columns are typical of the Nazi neoclassical architecture that flourished during Germany's darkest days. And on its roof line a curious detail catches the eye: the chrysanthemum crest, symbol of Japan's imperial family.

Until a few years ago, the wartime Japanese Embassy lay in ruins amid the lush greenery of the Tiergarten, the park in the heart of Berlin. It had sustained heavy damage from American bombing, and no one knew quite what to do with it. Vagrants squatted here. Prostitutes sneaked into the gutted shell for nighttime assignations.

At the urging of West German authorities, Japan finally repossessed and rebuilt the old embassy, spending $27 million to faithfully restore it in the style and spirit of original blueprints.

In its latest incarnation, the muscular four-story building serves as a cultural-exchange center. Still, memories of Nazi-era diplomatic intrigue remain embedded in its walls.

Those memories take on new meaning now that Germany is propelling itself toward reunification and Japan is establishing itself as the world's foremost financier. Both countries resurrected themselves from abject defeat to become industrial powerhouses. In the new order following the demise of the Cold War, Germany and Japan are odd twins on the ascent.

But five decades after Tokyo joined the Berlin-Rome Axis, sensitivities about the old fascist military alliance are still raw among the victims of World War II aggression.

Moreover, the means by which Japan and Germany are coming to grips with their past are poles apart. This distinction may have profound consequences as the Japanese superstate attempts to gain the trust of suspicious neighbors and wary trading partners.

Both Germany and Japan face intermittent pressure from old foes, most recently Poland and South Korea, to repudiate past acts of territorial aggrandizement. But while Germany is tormented by guilt and generally expresses unequivocal contrition, Japan still tends to see itself more a victim than a perpetrator--or at least as a lesser villain, culpable but with mitigating factors.

"I think the magnitude of the evils is entirely different" between Germany and Japan, said Teruo Kijima, Japan's consul general in West Berlin. "What the Nazis did was just unbelievable, not just in quantity but in quality. There was a difference in impact on neighboring countries as well."

Kijima's logic is not atypical. A revisionist view that Japan was forced into war by the United States is common among Tokyo's conservative elite. Conquests in the "Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere," the theory holds, were no more sinful than Western colonialism.

Japanese militarists did not, in fact, carry out a policy of selective genocide as their Nazi allies did against the Jews. But the Imperial Japanese Army's march through Asia was a kind of holocaust for many of the civilians caught in its path.

Japan's neighbors remember vividly, for example, that more than 100,000 Chinese were massacred in the six-week-long Rape of Nanjing, or that germ warfare experiments were conducted on prisoners of war in Harbin.

But in postwar Japan, scant attention has been paid to such atrocities. Accounts are glossed over in public school textbooks. Neo-fascist groups threaten former soldiers who voice shame about their wartime experiences. Officials in Hiroshima, apparently bowing to right-wing pressure, recently dropped plans to install an exhibit in the city's peace museum that would have documented Japanese acts of aggression preceding the tragic atomic bombing.

Remarkably, a cenotaph memorializing Korean forced-laborers who died in the nuclear attack remains quarantined outside Hiroshima's Peace Park, despite protests of discrimination from Seoul. Japanese victims--and even pet dogs martyred by the blast--are memorialized inside the park.

Every Aug. 6, anniversary of the first atomic raid, the nation indulges in an emotional ritual of mourning remembering how the war ended. But there is no ceremony recalling how it began.

"The German government states clearly that it started the war and that Germans should never forget this," said Masao Oda, a bearded Bank of Tokyo executive who serves as deputy director at the Japanese-German Center Berlin, the foundation occupying the old imperial embassy in the Tiergarten.

"But Japanese want to forget," Oda said. "These attitudes do not match."

The schism was well illustrated shortly after the Japanese-German Center opened in late 1987 with a mission of promoting cultural exchange.

One of the first projects proposed by the Japanese side would have examined parallels between Japan's emperor-worshiping Shintoism and the "myth of the German folk," Oda recalled with embarrassment.

Mythology in both countries was distorted and exploited during the war to mobilize totalitarian discipline and to instill a sense of racial superiority among the populations. But the project--advocated by a major Shinto shrine in Tokyo--was not intended to examine the evils of fascism or state religion.

Shinto officials saw the rich mythological traditions as a positive force, a kindred bond between the German and Japanese peoples.

German administrators at the Berlin center politely shelved the project.

"The Germans tend to reject their Deutsches mythos, " Oda said, "because Hitler used it."

Not so in Japan, where Emperor Akihito, who became Japan's constitutional monarch when Hirohito died at the beginning of last year, will undergo a government-funded enthronement ceremony in November that celebrates his divine status as the nation's Shinto patriarch.

Even the effort to restore the wartime embassy building in Berlin had a tint of Japanese nationalism. The task was undertaken by former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, who openly promoted while in office a philosophy of minzoku-shugi, or Japanese "folkism."

Nakasone had plans to use the Japanese-German Center as a resource for his personal think tank, according to Oda. But the charismatic statesman withdrew from the most conspicuous of public forums last year after becoming embroiled in a financial scandal at home.

The center, meanwhile, concerns itself largely with non-controversial affairs. The recurring theme is "trilateralism," or strategic links between the United States, Europe and East Asia. A recent symposium pondered the future of Hong Kong, for example.

Yet it is the aura of Japan's collusion with Nazi Germany that makes Oda's guided tour of the cavernous, marble-lined building so interesting. If reunited Germany moves its capital back to Berlin, Oda figures there is a 50-50 chance this structure will once again become Japan's embassy. For now, ghosts of the old Japan-German Axis still spook the place, and its occupants.

Hitler, the story goes, started constructing the splendid new embassy building in 1938 as a prize intended to help draw Japan into a military alliance and, in a hidden agenda, gain firepower in his war against the Soviet Union.

Tokyo joined Hitler's Tripartite Pact in September, 1940, but in a deft maneuver it also signed a non-aggression pact with Moscow the following spring. Japan never did intervene in the European theater, having been preoccupied with its own suicidal assault on the United States in the Pacific.

"The Axis never really worked," said Thilo Graf Brockdorff, secretary general of the Japanese-German Center. "The Pacific War was much more of a negative reaction to Japan's intense relationship with America than its alliance with Germany. When Germans remember the war, we don't think of Japan as being involved."

But Brockdorff, a former Bonn diplomat who is fluent in Japanese, said he had initial reservations about taking the job as chief administrator of the center because of the symbolism evoked by the building's signature Nazi architecture.

"This building requires intelligent handling," Brockdorff said. "I feel we can only stay and work in it if we don't close our eyes to what happened here in the past."

In early March, the old German-Japan Axis made headlines once again. This time, however, the ostensible threat was not military, but economic.

Japan's mighty Mitsubishi conglomerate and West Germany's Daimler-Benz combine announced that they would forge a new "cooperative relationship." The symbolic overtones of the deal were seized upon by the news media and raised eyebrows in Europe and the United States.

Both industrial groups contain their respective country's largest defense contractors, and although the partners disavowed any intention to collaborate on weapons technology, they named aerospace as one field in which they hoped to team up. A subsidiary of Mitsubishi built the legendary Zero fighter during World War II, while Daimler-Benz owns the company that built Germany's Messerschmitt warplane, it was observed.

"We never anticipated such an alarmist reaction," said Yoshio Taniguchi, executive vice president of Mitsubishi Corp., the trading house at the core of the Mitsubishi companies. "I think everybody was surprised because they remembered the tie-up between Japan and Germany 50 years ago."

So far, the two groups have unveiled only a few preliminary projects in auto manufacturing and aerospace research, and they have floated a plan to swap some stock in a cross-shareholding arrangement to cement their alliance.

"Things have cooled down. Nobody's saying we're going to provoke the Americans by helping Daimler-Benz build an auto plant," Taniguchi said. "If we were developing a strategy based on a specific agreement, it might be different. But we're just getting to know each other's faces."

The Mitsubishi-Daimler "axis," however, may presage a broader movement of Japanese companies seeking inroads into the prosperous European sphere. The 12 nations belonging to the European Community will integrate themselves into a single market after 1992, and the Japanese intend to be there--especially in Germany, now perceived as Europe's center of gravity.

Opportunities in Eastern Europe are being watched closely, too.

In late April, Yamaha opened a showroom for its motorcycles and musical instruments in East Berlin, just a short distance from the Brandenburg Gate and next door to the Soviet Embassy. Mitsubishi Motors plans to set up more than 100 car dealerships in East Germany by the end of the year. A number of Japanese banks and brokerages started negotiating for new offices here shortly after the Berlin Wall crumbled last November.

"It's always the banks and financial institutions that come first," said Hirokazu Arai, Japan's ambassador to East Berlin.

Other Japanese companies have come in recent months seeking German partners, apparently following Mitsubishi's cue, said Harmut Ebbing, an official with the Berlin Economic Development Agency.

"They're at the starting blocks and ready to run, while the Americans are still dragging their feet," Ebbing said. "This could be the start of a new Japanese-German alliance."

Ebbing recalled an old joke about the Axis powers that he understood was especially popular in Tokyo. Japan says to Germany, or, alternatively, Germany says to Japan: "In the next war, we do without the Italians."

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