Column: Germany faces up to the past

by Uzaemonnaotsuka Tokai

When I visit Germany, I must have beer and sausages before anything else. Last week I went to a restaurant in Berlin with an old friend of mine who lives there. When I began to raise my hand to call a server to take our order, my friend suddenly looked stunned and stopped me.

Believe it or not, it’s against the law to extend the right arm upward at an oblique angle because this apparently reminds people of the Nazi salute. When your name is called in school, it’s taboo to raise your hand. Instead, the German way involves holding the index finger and whirling it around.

This past spring, sales of a laundry detergent were suspended in Germany because the package said that it contained enough detergent for “88 washes.” The number “88” is apparently a kind of code for “Heil Hitler.” Frankly, I’m amazed by the attitude and keen awareness of the German people toward their history. They have faced up to a past in which the Nazis were allowed to gain power and they now take great care so that the same mistake is not repeated.

Our own nation, Japan, should have learned from history, too. But look what has become of this country. Our memory of the wartime killing is fading. While next year will mark the 70th anniversary of the end of the war, there seems to be a tendency to glorify an event that drove many young people to their deaths.

On my way back to my hotel after parting from my friend, I found a metal plate embedded in the surface of the pavement. It was a “stumbling block,” which bears the engraved name of a victim of the Holocaust. Stumbling blocks have been placed in many parts of Europe so that people will stop and reflect on the past. Here in Japan, we must also reflect on our attitude toward history in order to avoid turning back the hands of time.

(Originally published on October 18, 2014)